Physics is pure. There is either truth, or there are misunderstandings and misinterpretations. While the physical sciences are straightforward, this isn’t to say that they aren’t overcome by new fads through the ages. Just like other fields, a few dominant scientists gain the status of being elite in their respective fields through the scientific time periods. These elite scientists end up shaping the way an entire generation views the world. The lens through which these scientists see the world becomes an obsession within the scientific community.
However, there are some rare occurrences when the achievements of a scientist in a particular age transcend the limits and boundaries of scientific academia. These figures become public icons, widely recognized as legendary thinkers both within and outside of science. Very few scientists have reached this status. During the early years of the 18th century, mathematician Isaac Newton became this sort of public figure. His groundbreaking discoveries in optics, mathematics, and forces coupled with his traditionality (he was a gentleman, devoutly religious, and committed to his trade) elevated him to an international, timeless status.
The early 1900s brought Albert Einstein to similar fame, but for the opposite reason. His abstract thinking, revolutionary contributions to quantum physics, the theory of relativity, and his “mad-scientist” persona created quite the scientist. While his theories were all brilliant, his rebellious, non traditional approach to solving the mysteries of the universe truly made him stand out.
Now, after Einstein, there was a lull for around half a decade. Sure, we had Luckhardt and his discovery of the anesthetic properties of ethylene gas, Hubble and his creation of the basis of the Big Bang model, and Bretz with his in-depth theory on the effects of the cataclysmic floods caused by the Ice Age, but none of these scientists truly stood out to people outside scientific research. But in the early 1960s, a new physicist came into view of the public eye, by the name of Richard Feynman.
Richard Feynman was identified as a student with an aptitude for math in highschool. By age 15, he had taught himself various mathematical topics, including trigonometry, analytic geometry, as well as both differential and integral calculus. In his senior year, Feynman also won the New York University Math Championship. He attended MIT later that year, initially choosing to major in math, switching to electrical engineering, and returning back to the “theoretical” majors by finalizing on physics.
Apart from writing 2 significant papers that are still cited in modern physics research, Feynman wrote his senior thesis on “Forces in Molecules”, which is now known as the Hellmann-Feynman Theorem. In college, Feynman was also the top scorer (by a large margin) in the Putnam Math Competition, an extremely difficult math exam for college students, and he also scored a perfect score on his graduate school entrance physics exams to Princeton University (which was an unprecedented feat). Feynman’s first seminar was attended by some of the greatest physicists of the time, including Albert Einstein, John von Neumann, and Wolfgang Pauli.
After Pearl Harbor and the entrance of the United States into World War II, physicist Robert R. Wilson recruited Feynman to produce enriched uranium, a material used in an atomic bomb. As Wilson’s team was trying to produce this material, the Los Alamos Laboratory was being established, a secret lab in New Mexico where atomic bombs could be designed and manufactured. At Los Alamos, Feynman and Hans Bethe developed the Bethe-Feynman formula (aptly named) to calculate the yield of a fission bomb. Feynman also invented a new method of solving logarithms at Los Alamos, and calculated neutron equations for a small nuclear reactor built in Los Alamos.
Despite his work in the Manhattan Project or his Nobel Prize (which we will get to later), Feynman’s greatest work was not in the lab, but rather in the classroom. His two year introductory course in Physics at Caltech, which was meant for freshmen and sophomores, established his greatness as a teacher. From 1961 – 1963, Feynman taught this course, always lecturing in a hall overflowing with students and faculty eager to hear Feynman explain complex topics with simplicity.
These lectures were later transcribed into “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”, a 3 volume set that is still, to this day, some of the greatest books created in Physics. However, despite its intended audience, these lectures mainly amazed faculty and graduate students. While freshmen and sophomores began dropping out of his course at an alarming rate, faculty and graduate students began to fill empty spots, out of interest to learn simple concepts explained in a creative way. Even today, while many undergraduate physics students buy “The Feynman Lectures on Physics”, they never understand Feynman’s genius until they reread these lectures as graduate students.
Within the scientific community, Feynman was best known for his work in justifying the 20th century developments of Quantum Mechanics with 19th century foundations of Electromagnetic Field Theory, an achievement that earned him the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics. To understand why Richard Feynman received this prestigious accolade, we need to travel back to 1916, immediately after Albert Einstein finished the publication of his theory of relativity. A vast oversimplification of the theory of relativity that will suffice to provide relevant understanding is as follows:
The theory of relativity can only be described as Albert Einstein’s mathematical masterpiece – the perfect culmination of abstract imagination and prime intellect. This theory ecompasses two main ideas of motion being “relative”, special relativity and general relativity. Both of these theories deal with one major concept, spacetime. Spacetime is the 4-dimensional manifold that combines the three dimensions of space with the 1 dimension of time. The use of spacetime in relativistic calculations arguably emphasizes the importance of frames of reference and perspectives more than any other mathematical model in modern physics. While special relativity may seem like the more difficult one to understand of the pair, it actually came first (chronologically speaking), both within Einstein’s imagination as well as in publication. Special relativity establishes the connection between space and time for objects that are moving at a constant speed in a straight line.
General relativity outlines how gravity affects spacetime. Einstein visualized spacetime as a fabric or elastic cloth. Imagine planets as weights in this fabric, curving the spacetime around it. This curvature (or warping of spacetime if you prefer the pop-culture approach to physics) is the essence of general relativity.
After the theory of relativity and quantum mechanics became “mainstream” in the world of physics, a theory was created to describe the interaction between charged particles and electromagnetic fields through relativity. However, this theory needed to be reformulated to fit into the theory of relativity better. In 1948, Feynman contributed to the field of quantum electrodynamics by introducing Feynman diagrams, which are graphical representations of interactions between particles. These diagrams helped calculate the interaction probabilities between different particles. For his work in quantum electrodynamics and the physics of elementary particles, Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, along with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger.
As we near the anniversary of the day Richard Feynman passed away (February 15th), it is important to remember his contributions, not just to World War II, or academia, but in impacting thousands of physics students and inspiring them to become great in their fields.