Richard P. Feynman - Biographical Profile

Physicist Richard P. Feynman. Public domain (Congressional photo)

Basic Information:

Fullname: Richard Phillips Feynman

Nationality: American

Born: May 11, 1918
Death: February 15, 1988


  • Aline Greenbaum (sometimes spelled Arlene)
  • Mary Louise Bell
  • Gweneth Howarth

1965 Nobel Prize in Physics: along with two others "for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles."

Early Career & the Manhattan Project:

As a young man, just having received his Ph.D. from Princeton, Feynman was part of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. As a junior researcher on the project, he was primarily focusing on administration of the "human computers" in the theoretical division. Out of isolation and boredom, Feynman was known around the project as something of a practical joker ... which at times was inappropriate given the sensitive and classified nature of the work.

The Great Explainer:

Feynman was at times called "The Great Explainer" because of his skill at making complex subjects accessible to students. His series of CalTech lectures was released as the "Feynman Lectures on Physics," immensely popular in both audio and book versions.

While teaching at CalTech, he pursued research in quantum electrodynamics (developing the Feynman diagrams and related mathematical concepts that won him the Nobel Prize), superfluidity of liquid helium, and weak decay of particles.

Feynman was so fond of his Feynman diagrams that he famously had his van detailed with them.

Feynman's Insightful Explorations:

Though in his entire career he published only 37 research papers, he was immensely respected among the physics community. In 1959, he presented a speech which came to be known as the "classic talk," in which he asked "Why cannot we write all 24 volumes of the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin?" which ushered in the concept of nanotechnology.

He is further credited with coming up with the concept of quantum computing, which he spent several years exploring.

Feynman & the Challenger Investigation:

Richard Feynman was appointed to the Rogers Commission to investigate the 1986 Challenger disaster. He famously demonstrated on television how an O-ring on the ship could fail, using a glass of ice water. Feynman considered the primary failure to be administrative, in ignoring concerns expressed by engineers. His minority opinion was appended to the official report, as related in his book <I>What Do You Care What Other People Think?</I>.

Feynman's Death:

In 1987, Feynman had a relapse of cancer (originally being treated for it around 1979). This time, the surgery created complications, at which point he decided to forgo further treatment and try to die with dignity.

According to his sister, his last words were "I'd hate to die twice, it's so boring."

Feynman's wife Gweneth died in 1989. Both of them are buried Mountain View Cemetary in Altadena, California.

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