Advertisement
Share

Nobel Physicist R. P. Feynman of Caltech Dies

Times Science Writer

Richard P. Feynman, a boy wonder who went on to win a Nobel prize and became a television folk hero during one of the nation’s darker moments, died Monday night at the age of 69.

The Caltech physicist lost the final round in an eight-year battle with a rare form of cancer.

A spokesman for UCLA Medical Center said Feynman died from complications of recurrent abdominal cancer.

Advertisement

Although known throughout the world as a brilliant theoretical physicist, many of Feynman’s greatest moments came in the classroom where he confronted generations of students with challenges of the intellect while regaling them with stories from his brash, unorthodox mind.

In the end, he seemed to devote almost as much energy to maintaining his image as a macho womanizer who loved a good laugh as to solving the mathematical mysteries which won him the Nobel prize for physics in 1965, an intrusion on his life style for which he said he never forgave the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Yet for all his achievements, Feynman would have escaped much of the public attention that came his way in the final year of his life had it not been for the role he played as a member of the presidential commission that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.

As a scientist who had zealously shielded himself from committee assignments and other responsibilities that would have taken time he could otherwise have devoted to his love of physics, Feynman accepted the appointment reluctantly, and then went about the chore with gusto.

Seated before television cameras that beamed his image around the world, the old professor pulled off an impromptu experiment like a high school physics teacher, and in that single act cut through all the technical manuals and bureaucratic jawboning that threatened to conceal the real reason the Challenger exploded, killing seven people and plunging the nation into a period of despair.

He clamped a synthetic rubber O-ring from a model of the shuttle in an ordinary C-clamp, dropped the clamp into a glass of ice water, and then pulled it out and released the O-ring.

The “little experiment,” as Feynman called it, showed that the resiliency of the O-ring was impeded by the cold temperature.

Weeks later, when the final report of the commission was presented to the President, it said essentially the same thing that Feynman had demonstrated in the type of presentation that had already made him a legend among his students.

Flair for Showmanship

In the end, he went out the way he had spent so much of his life, as a great teacher.

And it was that flair for showmanship, along with a healthy dose of humor and irreverence, that endeared him to the endless parade of potential physicists who passed through his classroom at Caltech, where he taught theoretical physics for 36 years. It was no fluke that mostly students were the ones to respond when a call went out for blood after his second operation for cancer in 1981. Within hours more than 100 pints had been donated.

Fellow Caltech physicist Robert Leighton said Feynman was almost too good of a teacher.

“He made things appear so simple in the classroom that you thought you understood it,” Leighton said. “But when you got home that evening you found yourself wondering, ‘How did he do that?’ ”

One of his former students, Albert R. Hibbs, now a senior scientist with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, recalled what it was like to sit through a Feynman lecture.

Complicated Rhythm

“He would be standing in front of the hall smiling at us all as we came in, his fingers tapping out a complicated rhythm on the black top of the demonstration bench that crossed the front of the lecture hall,” Hibbs wrote in the introduction to one of Feynman’s books. “As latecomers took their seats, he picked up the chalk and began spinning it rapidly through his fingers in a manner of a professional gambler playing with a poker chip, still smiling happily as if at some secret joke.

“And then--still smiling--he talked to us about physics, his diagrams and equations helping us to share his understanding. It was no secret joke that brought the smile and the sparkle in his eye, it was physics. The joy of physics!”

Feynman is survived by his third wife, Gweneth Howarth, a son, Carl Richard, and a daughter Michelle Catherine. His second marriage ended in divorce, and his first wife died of tuberculosis while Feynman was working as a young physicist on the Manhattan Project, which gave birth to the nuclear age.

Asked once what he was most proud of in his life, Feynman paused for a long time and then answered:

“That I was able to love my first wife with as deep a love as I was able to.”

Polishing an Image

A strange statement, perhaps, for a man who spent much of his adult life polishing the image of a skirt-chaser and a devil-may-care genius.

His best selling book, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,” could also serve as a truck driver’s guide to picking up girls in Las Vegas, a subject to which he devoted many pages. The book (the success of which Feynman said he never understood) is an anthology of youthful pranks and adulthood triumphs, revealing a brash, argumentative man who loved to see himself as the fun-loving iconoclast.

He tells in the book of mastering the art of picking locks, a practice that did not amuse his superiors on the top-secret Manhattan Project. He delighted years later in teaching the technique to his students, a more receptive audience.

Feynman was a man who embellished his life with myths. One of them was that he actively shunned responsibility. In an interview for the television series “Nova,” Feynman put it this way:

“So I have invented another myth for myself: that I’m irresponsible. I’m actively irresponsible. I tell everybody I don’t do anything. If anybody asks me to be on a committee to take care of admissions, ‘No, I’m irresponsible. I don’t give a damn about the students.’ Of course I give a damn about the students, but I know that somebody else’ll do it.

Love of Physics

“And I take the view, ‘Let George do it,'--a view which you’re not supposed to take, OK, because that’s not right to do. But I do that because I like to do physics and I want to see if I can still do it. And so I’m selfish, OK, I want to do my physics.”

Feynman matured as a physicist just in time for the nuclear age. He entered the arena as the great machines came on line that began to break the atom into its parts. And with each new machine came the discovery of new parts as scientists probed more deeply into the complex interactions of a proliferating array of subatomic particles.

Far from becoming simpler as the atom dissolved into kaons, sigmas, lamdas and so on, it became more complex. Indeed, scientists soon found themselves confronted with a maze of incomprehensible formulas for the dynamic changes that take place whenever the atom is smashed.

Working in the young field of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman developed a series of diagrams to use in measuring the changes in subatomic particles during atomic evolution or when atoms collide in nuclear accelerators. The diagrams, which were visual aids that made it easier for scientists to compute the changes, greatly simplified the process.

In 1965, Feynman was awarded the Nobel prize for physics for his work in quantum electrodynamics, which he shared with two other scientists who were working independently on the same problem, Julian S. Schwinger of Harvard and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga of Japan.

Explain His Work

The award meant Feynman would be called on again and again to explain what he had done, a demand that he shunned partly out of contempt for those who had not bothered to learn the mathematics which he considered essential.

“Hell, if I could explain it to the average person, it wouldn’t have been worth the Nobel prize,” Feynman once said, claiming he was told that by a New York cab driver.

Winning the Nobel prize is a turning point in the life of any scientist. For some, it is the kiss of professional death, an endless distraction which keeps them from doing the very thing for which they won the prize.

For Feynman, it became an irritation and a barrier between him and the students whose minds he loved to tantalize.

He said he first heard that he had been selected from a reporter who called his home at 3:45 a.m.

“This is a heck of an hour,” he said he told the reporter.

Unwanted Fame

“I could have found out later this morning,” he said, and then hung up.

He soon found that he was no longer Richard Feynman, but the famed “Nobel laureate,” an impersonalization that he grew to loathe.

In an earlier interview with The Times, he said:

“Some guy who made a lot of money on dynamite wants to make himself a big thing and put his name on the big prize so everybody will remember the name ‘Nobel,’ and for that I got to be annoyed. The hell with it.

“You can’t escape it. A guy calls you up in the middle of the night, and my first reaction was, I won’t accept. But then I realized that if I said that I’d make a bigger stink than if I took it. You’re stuck. It’s not fair to be stuck like that. There’s no reason why your privacy and everything has to be interfered with.”

Feynman, a graduate of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who earned his doctorate at Princeton, had always enjoyed speaking to high school physics clubs, but he said that after he won the prize, he would show up to talk to the budding physicists only to find that the entire school had been invited to hear the Nobel laureate. He ended up accepting invitations only if the physics students would promise they would not tell their administration that he was coming.

Boy Wonder

Feynman made his mark early in life as a 25-year-old boy wonder on the Manhattan Project, where he rubbed shoulders with the titans of his field, including Niels Bohr and Hans Bethe, but the experience haunted him for years. The “moral question” of developing the bomb was laid to rest initially by the fact that the Germans were also building a bomb, he said in the “Nova” series. But the project continued even after the Germans were defeated, and Feynman said he did not reevaluate his commitment.

“I simply didn’t think, OK?” he said.

But he said that he had “a very strong reaction after the war of a peculiar nature.” While sitting in a New York City restaurant with his mother, he recalled, he thought that the creation of the nuclear bomb--and the failure of the political process--meant “things were sort of doomed.”

“I would see people building a bridge and I would say, ‘They don’t understand.’ I really believed that it was senseless to make anything because it would all be destroyed very soon anyway, but they didn’t understand that. And I had this very strange view of any construction that I would see. I always thought how foolish they are to try to make something. So I was really in a kind of depressive condition.”

Feynman never served in the military because, he said, he was classified mentally unfit after being what he felt was completely logical with a draft board psychiatrist. He said part of the exchange went like this:

Psychiatrist: “How much do you value life?”

Feynman: “Sixty-four.”

Psychiatrist: “Why did you say sixty-four?”

Feynman: “How are you supposed to measure the value of life?”

A Peculiar Science

The field in which Feynman excelled is a peculiar branch of science that is part theory, part physics and part mysticism. Scientists who are seeking to unlock the secrets of the atom frequently talk in religious terms. When they at last discover the smallest particle, the most primitive element of matter, they will be at the point of creation, to use the term that appears in many scientific papers, a term that implies order and purpose.

If the bottom line is chaos, not order, then the human experience is an evolutionary accident, a possibility that Feynman said he embraced without fear.

“You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing,” he said on “Nova.”

“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things.

“But I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit and if I can’t figure it out, then I go on to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer.

“I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, so far as I can tell possibly.

“It doesn’t frighten me.”


Advertisement