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Useful Notes / Richard Feynman

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"On the infrequent occasions when I have been called upon in a formal place to play the bongo drums, the introducer never seems to find it necessary to mention that I also do theoretical physics."

"If that's the world's smartest man, God help us."
Lucille Feynman, on Omni magazine naming her son the world's smartest man.

Drummer, lockpicker, artist, teacher, and raconteur... who also won a Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics. Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918 February 15, 1988) was considered one of the greatest scientific minds since Einstein. Even more than his contributions to science (which are numerous and varied), though, he is best remembered today as a personality, an irreverent, skeptical, iconoclastic embodiment of what a real scientist ought to be.

Born in Far Rockaway, New York in 1918, Feynman showed a passion for science at an early age. Much of his bedroom was taken up with electrical apparatus, and he often made pocket money by fixing radios. He attended MIT, and had nearly finished his postgraduate work at Princeton when he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project.

Personality-wise, he was known to combine eccentricity with a playful attitude to life and a love for practical jokes. As the youngest group leader at Los Alamos, he was often sought out by the older, more eminent scientists as a sounding board, because he was one of the few young physicists who wasn't too awestruck to disagree with them. During this time, he also became skilled at picking locks and breaking into safes, usually by guessing (he would note that some of them were frighteningly easy to figure out considering what they were supposed to protect) or stealing the combination. He would later brag that he had opened safes containing the greatest treasure of all time: the secrets of the atomic bomb.

While working on the Manhattan Project, he married his high school sweetheart Arline Greenbaum, who was at that time already terminally ill with tuberculosis; she tragically died before the project was finished. She was a perfect match for him in many aspects, sharing his sense of humor and a penchant for pranks. The story of their love is described in his second autobiographical book What Do You Care What Other People Think? (Its title is taken from a question she often put to him when he was preoccupied with how he or his work might be perceived by others.)

He came back into prominence shortly before his death, firstly with the release of his autobiography Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and secondly when he managed to get himself assigned to the Rogers Commission, which had been set up to investigate the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Feynman was concerned that the commission, whose members initially consisted largely of former politicians and business executives (they would, in the event, add a few more scientists after Feynman came on-board), had been set up simply to rubber-stamp a verdict that the disaster had been a freak accident and was unlikely ever to be repeated. He thus extensively investigated the shuttle programme and NASA in general, and while other members of the commission independently reached the same conclusion as Feynman — that the extremely low temperatures on launch day caused the rubber O-ring seals on the launch boosters to lose their elasticity and fail to properly seal, allowing the exhaust gases to burn through with catastrophic results — he was the one who demonstrated that point in a televised hearing, via the simple yet very effective method of dunking an elastic band into a glass of ice water, and showing that it became far less elastic as a result.

Given both his importance in history and his larger-than-life personality — and the fact that a lot of the current generation of science fiction writers read Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (his first autobiography) at an impressionable age — he's becoming increasingly popular as a Historical Domain Character.

While many regarded Stephen Hawking as the greatest theoretical physicist since Albert Einstein, Hawking himself felt Feynman deserved that title more.

Appears in the following works:

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    Comic Books 
  • Feynman is a major character in The Manhattan Projects.
  • There is a whole graphic novel about his life titled Feynman by Jim Ottaviani and illustrated by Leland Myrick.

    Fan Works 

  • Played by Matthew Broderick in the 1996 film Infinity, about Feynman's marriage to first wife Arline. It is based mostly on the first half of Feynman's second memoir What Do You Care What Other People Think?
  • The documentary Genghis Blues was filmed after he died, but he has a presence as The Ghost (including a bit of archival footage), since his oddball fascination with the Siberian republic of Tuva plays a role in the story.
  • Portrayed by Jack Quaid in Oppenheimer.

  • An Artificial Intelligence based on Feynman serves as a Trickster Mentor to one of the characters in Elizabeth Bear's Jenny Casey trilogy.
  • In the non-fiction book Enola Gay by Gordon Thomas about the development of the atomic bomb and its eventual use at Hiroshima, an unidentified (at the time) Trickster was noted to have cracked open a safe at Los Alamos National Laboratory containing atomic secrets and only left a piece of paper inside with two words written on it - "Guess Who?"

    Live Action TV 
  • Played by William Hurt in The Challenger Disaster, a Made-for-TV movie about the investigation into the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger. It is based largely on the second half of his second memoir What Do You Care What Other People Think?

  • Feynman fanboy Alan Alda produced and starred in QED, a play about Feynman set in his later years.