The curious physicist who became an icon of science
“There is beauty not only in the appearance of the flower, but also in being able to appreciate its inner workings and how it has evolved to have the right colors that attract insects to pollinate it. Science only enriches the enthusiasm and amazement that the flower provokes”, Richard Feynman, the most important and popular physicist of the 20th century along with Albert Einstein, explained in an interview recorded in 1981 for the BBC.
When the British network broadcast the recording the following year, the public fell at his feet, seduced by that gray-haired professor who intermingled anecdotes of his life and his philosophy of science with his groundbreaking theories of physics. Today Feynman, whose 100th anniversary of his birth is commemorated today, is an icon of science.
Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, like the recently deceased Stephen Hawking, Feynman (New York, 1918) was one of the few physicists who entered the popular universe, with his best-selling books, his lectures and his classes, and also his eccentric private life and hobbies like playing the bongos.
That he was a scientist was already decided even before his birth. When his mother was pregnant, his father warned him: "If he is a boy, I want him to be a scientist." Thus, at the age of 10 Feynman already had his own laboratory at home and shortly after he even hired his little sister, Joan, to help him for a floor of four cents a week. At 15 he self-taught trigonometry, advanced algebra, analytic geometry, and calculus.
After graduating from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in 1939, with the best possible grades in physics and mathematics, he entered Princeton University. His talent caused him to be recruited to participate in the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico, along with other great brilliant minds of the 20th century.
He was extremely curious, working on viruses, ant behavior and even the potential applications of nanotechnology. He, too, seemed to take an interest in seemingly the smallest things. In a Cornell bar, for example, he was watching a student who tossed a plate into the air like a fresbee. As it hit the ground, the dish began to rotate faster. That makes him think of the equations that explained both movements and in doing so he remembered a similar problem related to the spin of rotation of electrons, which had been described by the British physicist Paul Dirac. That in turn led him to Dirac's theory of quantum electrodynamics, which attempted to explain the subatomic world but raised as many questions as he got answers.
Feynman managed to solve this theory with his famous diagrams, with which he even decorated his van and which earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. These diagrams are used to model everything from the behavior of subatomic particles to the movement of the planets, the evolution of galaxies and the structure of the cosmos. Nearly a century later, they remain the best explanation for everything in the universe except gravity.
By the age of 10, Feynman had his own lab at home and soon after even hired his little sister, Joan, to help him out for four cents a week.
In 1986 he was part of the commission that investigated the Challenger shuttle accident, which exploded just 73 seconds after taking off and ended the death of the seven astronauts traveling on it.
In addition to his talent as a physicist, Feynman stood out for his role as a teacher and popularizer. At the California Institute of Technology (CALTECH), in Pasadena (USA), in his 'Physics X' classes, he faced the questions that his students wanted to ask. Many of his answers are collected in books and articles that have further increased his fame.
In 1986, Feynman died of cancer. By then, his biography was a bestseller and he was an icon of the 20th century. Today, 100 years later, the whole world pays tribute to him.