Richard P. Feynman (1918 – 1988) was an American theoretical physicist often referred to as “The Great Explainer” due to his ability to make complex topics understandable. While he won the Nobel Price in Physics in 1965 for his work developing quantum electrodynamics, today he is also famous for his forays into bongo drum playing, Tuvan throat singing, and safe cracking.
Born in 1918 in New York City, Feynman decided he would take it easy the first few years and didn’t get around to talking until after his third birthday. Shortly thereafter he picked up the exaggerated New York accent that made him all the more lovable.
Making up for lost time, Feynman showed an early talent for engineering, repairing radios and building burglar alarms, to which he credits his father for encouraging him to explore and challenge orthodox thinking. This curiosity continued as he got older, and before he entered college he had taught himself differential and integral calculus – all using his own notation for integrals, derivates, logarithms, sine, cosine, tangent, and such as there was no one around to tell him the standard way to go about it.
After being turned down by Columbia University due to a quota of Jews allowed to be admitted, Feynman enrolled at MIT. He received a bachelor’s in 1939 and then went on to earn a perfect score on Princeton’s entrance physics exam. Thus, despite being Jewish, he was admitted and graduated in 1942 with his Ph.D.
During WWII, Feynman worked on the atomic bomb project at Princeton University and then at Los Alamos, ultimately becoming a group leader in the theoretical division of the Manhattan Project and observing the first detonation of an atomic bomb – something he would later nearly regret. Following the war, he served as an associate professor at Cornell University before moving to the California Institute of Technology in 1950 as a theoretical physics professor.
In this role, he went on to leave an indelible mark on physics and quantum mechanics, ultimately co-winning the Nobel Prize in Physics. However, if that had been all that he had done, his name would not be nearly as well known outside of the realm of sciences.
It was his quirky personality and unorthodox approach to problem-solving that made Feynman such a curious character worth remembering. Feynman really wanted to know how things worked and would never accept another’s idea without thought if he had the capability to reason through it himself. He was devoted to figuring out the way the world worked, and would rather concede his ignorance than allow pride to force him into a quick answer.
Beyond his hard work and child-like curiosity, Feynman was, at his heart, a jokester. He was known to pick locks and crack safes at Los Alamos (the military base designing the world’s first atomic bomb, in case you thought he might have played it cool then). He was a fan of the bongo drums and attempted to compose a musical. He even found himself making travel plans to a Soviet-controlled territory near Siberia because he like the name of the capital city – Kyzyl, Tannu Tuva.
In short, Feynman shows us can be accomplished by pursuing hard, interesting and meaningful questions while reminding us that it is alright to not take ourselves too seriously along the way!
Richard Feynman Quotes
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”
“I don’t like honors…I’ve already got the prize: the prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things.”
“The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to…. No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”
“Fall in love with some activity, and do it! Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.”
“You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird… I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.“
“The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain”
Richard Feynman Posts
Richard Feynman Books
- “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Autobiographical stories written by Feynman himself, through which we get a glimpse of his quirky personality and ways of thinking that made him so special
- “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”: Following on the success of “Surely You’re Joking,” more insights from Feynman on life generally, including discussion around his involvement in solving the Challenger space shuttle disaster
- Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman: Definitive Richard Feynman biography by James Gleick
- Feynman [Graphic Novel]: The famous graphic novel exploring Feynman and his ideas
- The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman: Collection of some of his best short works – from interviews and speeches to lectures and printed articles. A sweeping, wide-ranging collection, it presents an intimate and fascinating view of a life in science – from the Feynman perspective, of course.
- Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher: For the physicist at heart
- Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time: For physicist 😀