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Richard Feynman

Richard FeynmanAKA Richard Phillips Feynman

Born: 11-May-1918
Birthplace: Far Rockaway, NY
Died: 15-Feb-1988
Location of death: Los Angeles, CA
Cause of death: Cancer - Stomach
Remains: Buried, Mountain View Cemetery, Altadena, CA

Gender: Male
Religion: Atheist
Race or Ethnicity: White
Sexual orientation: Straight
Occupation: Physicist, Author

Nationality: United States
Executive summary: Surely he's joking

American physicist Richard Feynman (pronounced fine-man) predicted the future of nanotechnology, and improved the scientific understanding of the nature of waves and particles and the interactions of light and matter. Most of his career was dedicated to unraveling quantum mechanics and quantum electrodynamics (QED). He found a way to sidestep "divergent integrals" (quantum calculations that lead to meaningless answers) and his Feynman diagrams presented innovative graphic analogues to the mathematics that describe how systems of interacting particles behave.

In the early 1940s he worked on the Manhattan Project, the super-secret American effort to develop the first atomic weapons. At Los Alamos he impressed Hans Bethe by challenging Bethe's mathematics without mincing words, after which the 24-year-old Feynman was given responsibility over far more seasoned physicists working on the project. At the first test explosion of an atomic bomb, Feynman was the only scientist who eschewed protective goggles and watched the blast with unshielded eyes he wanted to see the explosion clearly, and had researched the danger and confidently concluded that the risk to his vision was negligible.

In 1959 he gave a lecture to the American Physical Society, titled "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom", which forecast the future of nanotachnology in remarkable detail, describing among other marvels of the future machinery capable of encoding and reading the Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin. For most of the 1960s he focused on problems regarding the extreme high energy of heavy particles. In 1969 he devised a theory of "partons" for analyzing high-energy hadron collisions; his partons were later recognized as the quarks and gluons discovered by Murray Gell-Mann, but Feynman's theory remains fundamental to the current understanding of particle physics. His work contributed to the analysis of Compton scattering, pair production, and many other problems of QED, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965, sharing the honor with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga.

He was one of twelve members appointed to a commission tasked with investigating the 1986 explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, and Feynman's experiments showed that the tragedy was caused by a failure of the craft's rubber-like O-rings. Made of material with reduced resilience at temperatures below freezing, the rings were cracked by freezing weather, cracks which led to the escape of hot gasses leading to the fatal explosion. Much to the annoyance of commission chair William P. Rogers, Feynman used a glass of ice water and an O-ring to conclusively show the seal's vulnerability at a press conference in front of live television cameras.

Always curious, he taught himself calculus when high school math bored him, switched to physics when he found college-level math unchallenging, and researched quantum physics on his own because Princeton offered no courses on the topic. Throughout his career he amused himself with hobbies from picking locks to deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics to exploring altered states of consciousness in a sensory-deprivation tank. He was also a great popularizer of science, and became famous beyond academic circles for his insightful and infectiously enthusiastic 1985 best-seller, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, and for his thoughtful interviews and bongo performances which still circulate on video.

In the late 1970s he underwent successful surgery for stomach cancer, and a decade later the illness returned. He continued his work at Cal Tech through an eight-year battle against the disease, teaching his last class only two weeks before his death in 1988. His final lecture, according to students present, was on the topic of curved spacetime. His sister Joan Feynman is an astrophysicist, retired after a long career at NASA, the National Center for Atmospheric Research, and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Father: Melville Feynman
Mother: Lucille Phillips Feynman (m. 1917)
Brother: (b. 1923, d. infancy)
Sister: Joan Feynman (physicist, b. 31-Mar-1928)
Wife: Arline Greenbaum (high school sweetheart, m. 1941, d. Jul-1945 tuberculosis)
Wife: Mary Lou Bell (art history teacher, m. 1952, div. 1954)
Wife: Gweneth Howarth (b. 1934, m. 1960, d. 1989)
Son: Carl Richard Feynman (b. 22-Apr-1961)
Daughter: Michelle Catherine Feynman (adopted, b. 13-Aug-1968)

    High School: Far Rockaway High School, Queens, NY (1935)
    University: BS Physics, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (1939)
    University: PhD Physics, Princeton University (1942)
    Professor: Theoretical Physics, Cornell University (1945-50)
    Professor: Theoretical Physics, California Institute of Technology (1950-59)
    Professor: Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics, California Institute of Technology (1959-88)

    Nobel Prize for Physics 1965 (with Julian Schwinger, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga)
    E. O. Lawrence Award 1962
    Oersted Medal 1972
    National Medal of Science 1979
    Manhattan Project Princeton (1941-42)
    Manhattan Project Los Alamos (1942-45)
    American Association for the Advancement of Science
    American Institute of Physics
    American Physical Society
    Association for Cultural Evolution Board of Directors
    Federation of American Scientists
    National Academy of Sciences
    Royal Society 1965 (Foreign member)
    Pi Lambda Phi Fraternity
    Belarusian Ancestry
    Polish Ancestry Maternal
    Russian Ancestry Paternal
    American Ancestry Maternal
    Jewish Ancestry
    Esalen Speaker
    Asteroid Namesake 7495 Feynman
    Risk Factors: Stomach Cancer

Author of books:
Quantum Electrodynamics (1961, non-fiction)
The Theory of Fundamental Processes (1961, non-fiction)
The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1963-65, non-fiction; three volumes)
The Character of Physical Law (1965, non-fiction)
Photon-Hadron Interactions (1972, non-fiction)
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (1985, non-fiction)
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (1985, memoir)
Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics (1987, physics; with Steven Weinberg)
What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988, memoir)
Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher (1994, non-fiction; posthumous)
Six Not So Easy Pieces: Einstein's Relativity, Symmetry and Space-Time (1997, non-fiction; posthumous)
The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist (1998, essays; posthumous)
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (1999, non-fiction; posthumous)
Selected papers of Richard Feynman (2000, non-fiction; posthumous)
Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track (2005, correspondence; posthumous)
Don't You Have Time to Think? (2005, correspondence; posthumous)

Appears on postage stamps:
USA, Scott #3909C (37, depicting 1950s Feynman and four diagrams, issued 4-May-2005)

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