This paper gives a biography of physicist Richard Feynman and explains what his life and accomplishments tell us about the structure of scientific inquire in the United States. (8 pages; 2 sources; endnotes)
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was one of those scientists who achieved not only a great deal of respect from his peers but also “crossed over” into mainstream American culture to the extent that many non-scientists at least knew his name.
Feynman worked to develop the first atomic bomb, won the Nobel Prize in physics, and was the person who solved the mystery of the Challenger explosion.
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He seems to have what I can only describe as “fans”: there are tons of websites devoted to him, his work, his life, and his somewhat unorthodox non-scientific pursuits (he was an artist, storyteller, Mayan hieroglyphics translator, and safe-cracker!)
This paper will look at Feynman’s life, which will help us see him in his various roles as “scientist, administrator, strategist, pioneer” and suggest how his experiences can help us understand the “historical structure and organization of American science.”
II Brief Biography
Richard Feynman was born in New York City in 1918. His family was comfortable but not wealthy, and they gave their son a great gift: the confidence to be himself. “As a young man he had the opportunity to learn to work industriously, but without undo pressure to perform. That in itself would be a theme that he’d rediscover periodically over his lifetime. The rewards for his labors were his own. He would be the judge of his own merit.
He was a free man. But what to do with his freedom?”
His father, Melville, wanted the boy to be a scientist, but apparently didn’t “push” him hard in that direction. Rather, instead of teaching the boy facts, he encouraged Richard to ask questions. This “intuitive and subtle” approach let the boy become involved in science because he was interested in it, not because he was forced to work in the field. He also learned that it is quite possible to live one’s entire life and never find the answers to the most important questions; what’s important is asking the questions themselves.
Richard’s mother Lucille gave him a gift just as important as his sense of inquiry: a sense of humor and an ability to laugh at himself. Because science requires a great deal of trial and error, this ability proved to be a great help throughout his career. He even wrote books of anecdotes, one entitled Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and the other What Do You Care What Other People Think?
As the boy grew, his interest in science narrowed slightly. He remained fascinated by all the sciences (astronomy, chemistry, biology, geology, etc.), but was most attracted by mathematics and physics. He finally settled on physics and began his studies at MIT. He finished a four-year degree there, and moved on to Princeton for graduate work. At the same time he became engaged to Arline Greenbaum who has been described as his “soul mate”.
Arline suffered from tuberculosis, but despite the fact that she wasn’t expected to live many more years, the two were married while Feynman was at Princeton.
During World War II it was known that Nazi Germany was working to split the atom and build an atomic bomb; scientists in America were working equally hard to get there first. This of course was the famous “Manhattan Project” work on which was being done at the University of Chicago, Oak Ridge, Tennessee, and Los Alamos, New Mexico, among other locations.
Exceptionally talented scientists from various disciplines were invited to Los Alamos to work on the project, and Feynman was one of those invited, having attracted attention by his brilliant work in physics and mathematics at Princeton. Although he wasn’t particularly enthusiastic about it, he was “haunted” by the idea that the Germans would build the bomb first, and assure themselves of victory in the war. He and Arline moved to New Mexico; he lived on the base, she was hospitalized in Albuquerque where he visited her on weekends. During this period, Feynman developed one of his more unusual talents: safecracking. He was convinced that security at the base wasn’t sufficient, and set about proving it by opening safes filled with classified documents about bomb building!
This period of his life ended in personal triumph—and personal tragedy. Arline died in July 1945, just before the first bomb test; but the test was successful, much of it thanks to Feynman.
Feynman appears to have felt somewhat lost after Arline’s death, and went into what Martin describes as a “slump.” He had lost his soul mate and his inspiration, and he felt that he had little left to contribute to his field. But then he was offered a post at the prestigious Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton; Einstein held a position there. And something of Feynman’s childhood values came back to him: “He realized that it was none of his concern what others expected of him.” Once again freed from the paralysis that affects us when we try to please others, he returned to his work with renewed vigor, working on projects that interested him.
It was one of these projects, quantum electrodynamics or QED (which is a nice play on words if you remember your Latin) that won him the Nobel Prize in Physics. He had virtually invented this branch of science:
“The method … had to do with computing the probability of a transition of a quantum from one state to some other subsequent state. In principle, every possible path from one state to the other is considered equally likely, with the final path between being a kind of sum of all paths. This was an entirely new formalism in quantum mechanics, and he eventually adopted it directly to the physics of quantum electrodynamics, also called QED. For this work, he eventually was awarded the Nobel Prize in physics…”
The point is that he followed his own intuitive path to this discovery, rather than following someone else. He also worked with super-cold liquid helium in the field of superfluidity; and other physics projects. But perhaps the work for which he is best known is the Challenger mystery.
At this point, I have to skip over much of his fascinating life to address the other points. Briefly, he has married again twice; taught at CalTech (California Institute of Technology) and redesigned their physics curriculum; took up art; and began a study of the tiny country of Tuva, which lies between Mongolia and Russia. He was plagued by recurring bouts of cancer and finally refused further treatment for what was, in any event, a terminal condition. He died in 1988.
III Feynman’s Contributions
We’ve already seen that Feynman was a scientist, administrator, and pioneer, but what does his life tell us about the history and structure of American science? Although Feynman is quite a character, as I’ve indicated, no scientist starts from scratch. He or she builds on what people have done before, and this method reveals that science is, in general, a cooperative field.
It has specific protocols, its own language (physicists talk to one another in terms that baffle the layman), and its own procedures. Feynman was able to fit into this structure (he won a great deal of praise from his superiors and mentors at Princeton and it was that experience, along with their recommendations, that got him to Los Alamos) and at the same time retain the independence that led him to make his discoveries in QED, for instance.
Feynman wanted always to know the facts, and it was precisely this quality, coupled with his independence, that led to his being nominated to join the committee investigating the Challenger disaster. What he found was unsettling: NASA officials reassured the public that the chances of a catastrophic failure of the shuttle were 1 in 100,000; when Feynman talked to the people who actually put the thing together, they said the odds were more like 1 in 100. This is an alarming statistic and indicates just how unsafe the shuttle was—and is.
Feynman’s third wife, Gweneth, who was more objective about the situation that Feynman himself, urged him to join the investigation:
“She reminded him that, while the other members would be obediently chasing their carrots, he was sure to be found in some unexpected province of the network of managers, engineers and technicians involved with the spacecraft, sifting out some critical speck of evidence. This encouragement convinced him to accept the job, and he did, indeed stray from the pack. He discovered that, for one thing, NASA and its major contractors had an unspoken tendency to discourage their own people from constructive criticism of valid safety issues. This was old hat to him, as he’d encountered a similarly blind eye attitude about the security of the bomb secrets back at Los Alamos.
“As it turned out, a number of low ranking individuals in the space program had reason to expect certain systems of the spacecraft to be a catastrophe waiting to occur, but the internal politics made it improbable at best to expect any important level of remediation. NASA continued to launch its shuttle fleet while sugar coating and even selectively ignoring flight data that told the tale of the Challenger well in advance of its eventual destruction. …”
“Feynman’s inclusion on the commission was the best things that could’ve happened since, not only was he intrinsically inclined to circumvent the chain of authority, but he also was the one and only commission member without a vested interest either for or against the shuttle program.”
Feynman believed that the accident was caused when O-rings used to seal the solid rocket booster joints failed to expand due to low temperatures at launch. He was able to prove his theory correct and gave a demonstration that conclusively proved his case.
I’ve quoted the passage above at length because it is vital to understanding the system: the reluctance of underlings to criticize their superiors or to speak up, even when lives are at stake; the need for officials to “sugar coat” findings to make them palatable to the public; an unwillingness to question contractors, and above all, politics. The fact that Feynman had to wade through this sludge to get at the truth is one of the ugly aspects of the American system of science.
Richard Feynman was a most intriguing man: a scientist who knew and respected scientific principles and yet went his own way. He was a man of great integrity and imagination, but also great fun. A writer and storyteller, a physicist and mathematician, thrice-married and with huge numbers of fans; he was an original.
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