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Richard Feynman, his diagrams and his bongos

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Translation of "Richard Feynman, sus diagramas y sus bongos"  by Salvador Ruíz Fargueta published in La bella teoria on 06 October 2008.

Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988) was one of the most brilliant and original physicists of the 20th century. With an unlimited curiosity towards natural phenomena, he made important contributions in various fields of physics and was also an excellent lecturer, capable of transmitting his passion for science. His intuition was extraordinary; he always sought to tackle physics problems differently from other people and wanted to present the known problems in ways that were far removed from the well trodden paths.

To review Feynman's contributions to physics is to cover most of the physics of the 20th century. He opened new areas in fields such as quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics, condensed matter, interactions and elementary particles, non-linear physics and quantum information and computation. To this long list, one could also add his pioneering role in quantum gravity and in the so-called nanotechnologies. He received the Nobel Physics Prize in 1965, shared with J. Schwinger and S. Tomonaga for his work in quantum electrodynamics. Apart from this, these three scientists demonstrated how to address quantum and relativistic studies of systems with electrical charges, such as electrons and positrons, in their interaction with electromagnetic fields. But Feynman's method perfectly illustrates his talent. Where his colleagues wrote long mathematical formulae, Feynman drew, literally, the physical processes that he wanted to investigate, from which diagrams he was able to perform calculations using precise rules. Currently, the use of Feynman diagrams, or variants of these diagrams, is the standard procedure for making calculations in many and various fields of physics.

Feynman's excellence as a communicator is a topic all to itself. Many of those who attended his classes and talks remember the fascination that Feynman exercised over the audience, something that seemed to be in tune with his melodramatic character. For Feynman, the classroom was a theatre and he the actor who had to maintain a sense of intrigue while he was talking of physics and writing numbers and formulae on the board. He used to prepare his classes and talks with this intention, as if they were classical theatre plays, with an introduction, development and conclusion. His passionate way of speaking about physics made him a popular lecturer; many of his lectures were transcribed and published in book form and even some were recorded for television.

Feynman gave classes only to final year and doctoral students with one single and important exception. During the years 1961-2 and 1962-3, he have a physics course for first and second year students which became one of the most famous physics courses ever. The classes were recorded, transcribed and published under the title "The Feynman Lectures on Physics" in three volumes and they are still published and translated even today.

Feynman's love of bongo playing is also very well known and further demonstration of his extrovert character. His friend, Ralph Leighon, wrote two books with the anecdotes that Feynman used to tell during weekly meetings they held to play together. The two books, whose original titles are "Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman" and "What do you care what other people think?" are still published today and sell well. Feynman loved telling interesting stories in which he often played an important role.

Universal popularity came following his participation in the commission investigating the Challenger accident in January 1986. The space shuttle exploded soon after takeoff and the live televison transmission of the accident amplified its social impact. A good half of the second book of anecdotes is devoted to this participation. Going much against the president of the commission, who wanted to control the whole process, Feynman conducted his own investigation in his own way. He soon became convinced that the problem was that the rubber joints sealing the fuel tank could not withstand the low temperatures at the moment of takeoff. He decided to make a demonstration of this during one of the public sessions of the commission. The attending journalists broadcast his speech and the whole world understood the cause of the accident. As a consequence, Feynman became a popular icon and soon T-shirts began to appear in the shops with his diagrams.

In the words of his colleague Schwinger, Feynman was an example of someone who "liked dancing to the rhythm of a different drum". The laws of physics can often be formulated in many ways, seemingly different at first glance, until mathematical work demonstrates that they are identical. Feynman used to say that this was a mysterious fact that no one understood, and in it he saw the reflection of the simplicity of nature.



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