Richard Feynman

Richard P Feynman, 1918-1988. One of the best physicists of recent (or any) years. As well as being a brilliantly innovative physicist, he was a first-rate popularizer of science. The thing that strikes me most in his writing is that he was an exceptionally clear thinker, even in a profession where clear thinking is at a premium.

He won the NobelPrize for his work in quantum mechanics. Buzzwords: path integrals and Feynman diagrams. The idea is that one way to work out what happens in a physical situation is to consider all possible things that could happen, assign sort-of-probabilities to them, and add them up. It turns out that (for instance) when you look at all the possible paths a photon could take and assign them the right weights, it's overwhelmingly likely that it will travel more or less in a straight line. (For more on this, see his excellent book QedTheStrangeTheoryOfLightAndMatter?.) I mention this not only because it's interesting but because it's curiously reminiscent of his insight into the question HowDoAntsWalkInaStraightLine: they try out lots of wandering paths, which get averaged out over time...

Feynman was also, like many great scientists, unfettered by convention and blessed with a keen sense of fun. His book SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman contains many fine examples.

-- GarethMcCaughan


It's also deliciously self-referential. Sum-over-histories (the integration of all possible things that could happen) describes the way in which he arrived at this theory, too. I think that much of Feynman's "genius" comes out of having a different toolkit than most people, using all the tools in the toolkit, whether they appear to be appropriate or not, then factoring out the solutions with a higher probability of pertinence. He alluded to this somewhat in SurelyYoureJokingMrFeynman, but it wasn't until recently that I grasped the bigger picture. -- TimLesher


I just found this page via WorldGeniuses and had to add Feynman. I'm currently reading his biography "Genius" by JamesGleick? and really enjoying it. I wish I had the book handy for a particular quote, but I'll just have to paraphrase. Some of his contemporaries describe different types of genius, and how Feynman fits in. They describe the "ordinary" genius - someone we would be like if only we were many times smarter. Then there is the "magician" genius like Feynman. Once we see what he has accomplished, we have no clue as to how he did it.

Another passage describes someone imitating Feynman's problem solving technique. First you write down the problem. Then you think about it real hard (press fist against forehead for emphasis). Then you write down the solution.

-- GregVaughn

This is usually described as problem solving using the FeynmanAlgorithm.


Here is my favourite quote, from the Appendix to the report by the Rogers Commission on the Challenger Space Shuttle Accident -- RolandKaufmann

"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled." -- Richard P. Feynman
My favorite quotation was near the end of W. DanielHillis' article in Physics Today (RichardFeynmanAndTheConnectionMachine):

I hesitated. "I'm sad because you're going to die."

"Yeah," he sighed, "that bugs me sometimes too. But not so much as you think." And after a few more steps, "When you get as old as I am, you start to realize that you've told most of the good stuff you know to other people anyway."

The subject of the current (Nov 2001) Broadway play "QED".

I have not seen the play, but I have seen a sufficient quantity of reviews in the New York Times, which praise the play for the wrong reasons and quote the scriptwriter/director describing the wrong reasons for writing it, to convince me that it is a horrible travesty not reflective of Feynman's true personality. -- DanielKnapp
I noticed the name on some books in the bookstore, but they were all wrapped with plastic so you could not browse before buying. Is there something significant in that?
Yes, his books and his lecture notes are very good.


Likely. Feynman was known as a strong believer in simplicity (See: EinsteinPrinciple), and claimed that "You never really know a subject unless you can prepare a freshman lecture on it." However, his three volume Feynman Lectures pretty much redefined what a "freshman lecture" is! -- ChadThompson

However, some claim that as a genius, it was hard for him to really succeed at teaching down to freshmen. See FeynmanEffect.

Reminds me of Einstein's quote "You do not really understand something unless you can explain it to your grandmother."


For Feynman junkies (or former physics students, as we like to call ourselves), the recorded SixEasyPieces? is interesting listening. The "Six Easy Pieces" are basically six introductory lectures to various topics at the conceptual level (i.e. no math).

The Wiki group might also be interested in the Feynman Lectures On Computation - ISBN 0738202967 .

-- ChadThompson

You will never stop thanking yourself if you beg/borrow/steal Feynman's recordings. His wit and humor doesn't translate to the page. -- Brett Nieland
CategoryScientist

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