Although the realm of Mathematics in Physics is vast, I wanted to start a series where I talk about famous physicists whose work involved a large quantity of mathematics, starting off with Richard Feynman.
Ever since reading his semi-autobiography ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!‘ I became fascinated with Feynman and his outlook on life. A charismatic man, he was a huge populariser of physics through both his books and lectures, for example, a 1959 talk on top-down nanotechnology called There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom, and the three-volume publication of his undergraduate lectures, The Feynman Lectures on Physics.
Feynman was born in New York City in 1918, and studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he obtained his B.Sc. in 1939 and at Princeton University where he obtained his Ph.D in 1942.
Feynman is most well known for his work in quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, the physics of the superfluidity of supercool liquid helium, and particle physics for which he proposed the parton model: “a way to analyse high-energy hadron collisions“. Due to his contributions to quantum electrodynamics, he received, along with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.
He is also well known for diagrams that were used to explain the interaction between the sub-atomic particles, which later became known as ‘Feynman Diagrams’.
Robert R. Wilson, a physicist at Princeton, encouraged Feynman to help develop the atomic bomb during World War II in the Manhattan Project. He was assigned to Hans Bethe’s division, which was theoretical, and impressed Bethe sufficiently to be made group leader. Jointly with Bethe, he developed the Bethe-Feynman formula, which calculated the yield of a fission bomb.
a = internal energy per gram // b = growth rate // c = sphere radius
However, as a junior physicist, Feynman was not central to the project, and thus a large part of his work was administering the computation group of ‘human computers’ in his division. Furthermore, he aided in the establishment of the system for using IBM punched cards for computation.
During his time in Los Alamos – the site of the Manhattan Project – he was sought out by Niels Bohr for one-to-one discussions, due to the fact that he had no inhibitions to say what he thought; most scientists were too much in awe of Bohr to argue with him.
As depicted in his semi-autobiographical book I mentioned above, Feynman became bored in Los Alamos as it was very isolated: “There wasn’t anything to do there“. As a result, Feynman gained a fascination for safecracking. The documents that were generated by bomb work, which contained top secret information, were mostly kept in filing cabinets or combination safes, and there was an assumption of their safety. Feynman set out to prove this to be wrong by becoming an expert safecracker. By reading books by professionals and developing his own methods, he became notorious for his ability to open safes.
“At one instance, just after the close of the war, he had a rare opportunity to put this talent to use, wherein he managed to open a bank of files which contained every document for the construction of the bomb, thus showing conspicuously the edge on which our civilisation sometimes teeters.”
Feynman died of two rare forms of cancer in 1988, aged 69. His last words are noted as:
“I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”
I’ve tried to condense Richard Feynman’s work into a short blog post, which is truly hard to do as he contributed such a large amount to the scientific community in many different areas. I would highly recommend reading ‘Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman’ to find out more about Feynman’s character and personality, or ‘QED’ to read about his Nobel Prize winning work. Hope you enjoyed this post nonetheless! M x