The Nobel Prize in Physics 1965
The Nobel Prize in Physics 1965 was awarded jointly to Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, Julian Schwinger and Richard P. Feynman "for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles."
Following the establishment of the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics, an initial relativistic theory was formulated for the interaction between charged particles and electromagnetic fields, however, this needed to be reformulated. In 1948, Richard Feynman contributed to creating a new quantum electrodynamics by introducing Feynman diagrams: graphic representations of various interactions between different particles. These diagrams facilitated the calculation of interaction probabilities.
[Curator’s note: The following material quotes and paraphrases extensively from articles posted by the Nobel Prize Committee and the Princeton Herald and the Princeton Alumni Weekly; see Sources below for details.]
Richard P. Feynman was born in New York City on May 11, 1918. Feynman attended Far Rockaway High School, which was also attended by fellow Nobel laureates Burton Richter and Baruch Samuel Blumberg. Upon starting high school, Feynman was quickly promoted to a higher math class. An IQ test administered in high school estimated his IQ at 125—high but "merely respectable", according to biographer James Gleick. His sister Joan, who scored one point higher, later jokingly claimed to an interviewer that she was smarter. Years later he declined to join Mensa International, saying that his IQ was too low.
Undergraduate studies at MIT
Feynman attended the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he joined the Pi Lambda Phi fraternity. Although he originally majored in mathematics, he later switched to electrical engineering, as he considered mathematics to be too abstract. Noticing that he "had gone too far," he then switched to physics, which he claimed was "somewhere in between." As an undergraduate, he published two papers in the Physical Review. One of these, which was co-written with Manuel Vallarta was entitled "The Scattering of Cosmic Rays by the Stars of a Galaxy."
The other was his senior thesis, on "Forces in Molecules", based on an idea by John C. Slater, who was sufficiently impressed by the paper to have it published and it became known as the Hellman-Feynman theorem. In 1939, Feynman received a bachelor’s degree and was named a Putnam Fellow.
Princeton for Graduate School
He attained a perfect score on the graduate school entrance exams to Princeton University in physics, an unprecedented feat. Attendees at Feynman's first seminar, which was on the classical version of the Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory, included Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli and John Neumann. Feynman received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1942. His thesis advisor was John Archibald Wheeler. In his doctoral thesis entitled, "The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics,” a key insight was that positrons behaved like electrons moving backwards in time. James Gleick wrote:
This was Richard Feynman nearing the crest of his powers. At twenty-three ... there may now have been no physicist on earth who could match his exuberant command over the native materials of theoretical science. It was not just a facility at mathematics (though it had become clear ... that the mathematical machinery emerging in the Wheeler–Feynman collaboration was beyond Wheeler's own ability). Feynman seemed to possess a frightening ease with the substance behind the equations, like Einstein at the same age, like the Soviet physicist Lev Landau—but few others.
One of the conditions of Feynman's scholarship to Princeton was that he could not be married; nevertheless, he continued to see his high school sweetheart, Arline Greenbaum, and was determined to marry her once he had been awarded his Ph.D. despite the knowledge that she was seriously ill with tuberculosis. This was an incurable disease at the time, and she was not expected to live more than two years. On June 29, 1942, they took the ferry to Staten Island where they were married in the city office. The ceremony was attended by neither family nor friends and was witnessed by a pair of strangers. Feynman could kiss Arline only on the cheek.
Professor Feynman worked at Princeton in the early stages of the Manhattan Project on the problem of separating uranium isotopes. Later he was a group leader in theoretical physics at Los Alamos Laboratory and was present at the first test explosion of the atomic bomb.
Curiosity, wit, brilliant and playful temperament
Feynman was a professor of Theoretical Physics at Cornell University (1945-1950) and then Visiting Professor and thereafter appointed Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology (1950-1959). He was the Richard Chace Tolman Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology.
He was widely known for his insatiable curiosity, gentle wit, brilliant mind and playful temperament. These qualities were clearly evident in his popular 1985 book of reminiscences, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” which was on the New York Times best-seller list for 14 weeks.
MIT physicist Philip Morrison called Mr. Feynman “the most original theoretical physicist of our time,” according to a report by United Press International. Morrison said Mr. Feynman, who called his Nobel Prize “a pain in the neck,” was “extraordinarily honest with himself and everyone else,” and added that “he didn’t like ceremony or pomposity . . . he was extremely informal. He liked colorful language and jokes.”
Mr. Feynman attracted widespread attention during the Rogers Commission hearings on the Challenger space shuttle accident in 1986. Frustrated by witnesses’ vague answers and by slow bureaucratic procedures, he conducted an impromptu experiment that proved a key point in the investigation: He dunked a piece of the rocket booster’s O-ring material into a cup of ice water and quickly showed that it lost all resiliency at low temperatures. In the commission’s final report, Mr. Feynman accused the National Aeronautics and Space Administration of “playing Russian roulette” with astronauts’ lives.
His driving curiosity was apparent when, in his last media interview, he told The Boston Globe last year that his work on the shuttle commission had so aroused his interest in the complexities of managing a large organization like NASA that if he were starting his life over, he might be tempted to study management rather than physics.
Ever playful and unintimidated by authority, Mr. Feynman caused consternation in his years with the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, by figuring out in his spare time how to pick the locks on filing cabinets that contained classified information. Without removing anything, he left taunting notes to let officials know that their security system had been breached.
Former Caltech president Marvin Goldberger, now director of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., said Mr. Feynman was “a towering figure in 20th century physics, always curious, always modest, always ebullient, always willing to share his deep insights with students and colleagues.”
Receives the Nobel Prize in 1965
He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965, along with Shinichero Tomonaga of Japan and Julian Schwinger of Harvard University. The three had worked independently on problems in the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which describes how atoms produce radiation. He reconstructed almost the whole of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics in his own way, deriving a way to analyze atomic interactions through simple diagrams, a method that is still used widely.
He described the theory for a general audience in his 1986 book, “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter.” An earlier textbook, “The Feynman Lectures on Physics,” was published in 1963 and remains a leading text in physics classes.
In “Lectures,” Mr. Feynman responded to charges that scientific understanding detracts from an esthetic appreciation of nature:
“The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I was a part — perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there . . . It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. Far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined!”
Professor Feynman was a member of the American Physical Society, the American Association for the Advancement of Science; the National Academy of Science; in 1965 he was elected a foreign member of the Royal Society, London (Great Britain).
He holds the following awards: Albert Einstein Award (1954, Princeton); Einstein Award (Albert Einstein Award College of Medicine); Lawrence Award (1962).
Richard P. Feynman died on February 15, 1988, leaving behind his wife, Gweneth; a son, Carl; a daughter, Michelle, and a sister, Joan Feynman.