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Scientists remember Feynman as new book is published

At a tribute to physicist Richard P. Feynman on May 6, a woman in the packed Tang center audience stood up and addressed panelist Carl Feynman, Dr. Feynman's 36-year-old son.

"Is it true," she asked, "that your daddy had a car with drawings all over it?"

Carl Feynman acknowledged that there once was a 1974 Ford van, California license plate "Quantum," covered with the pictograph-like Feynman diagrams for which his father won the Nobel Prize in 1965. "People would sometimes come up to us and ask, 'Why do you have Feynman diagrams on your van?' and we'd say, 'Well, we're the Feynmans.'"

While not exactly a household name, Richard Feynman made his mark in physics and in the hearts of those who knew him and knew of him. His serious work and playful nature struck a chord with scientists and nonscientists alike who continue to idolize him 10 years after his death.

In celebration of the posthumous publishing of the latest Feynman book -- The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist (Perseus Press/Helix Books), based on three lectures he delivered in April 1963 at the University of Washington in Seattle -- the MIT Humanities and Dewey libraries and the MIT Press Bookstore sponsored a tribute to Dr. Feynman as part of the "authors@mit" series.

While Feynman buffs can get a new dose of his quirky views on life, religion, politics and science from the book, the MIT community filled Wong Auditorium, its aisles and lobby to hear four panelists reflect on Richard Feynman the man.

Nuclear physicist and National Medal of Science recipient Herman Feshbach, Institute Professor emeritus, said that the Feynman he met as a senior in 1938 was "very conscientious, very square, very dedicated to physics. He was not the flamboyant Feynman of later years."

Still, he had his moments. During a class Feshbach described as so boring that most of the students simply settled in for the duration, sometimes bringing other work to do, Feynman "pestered the teacher with questions. It drove the teacher mad, but it improved our education significantly."

Dr. Feynman graduated from MIT in 1939 with a degree in physics and went on to Princeton as a graduate student, where he developed ideas in quantum mechanics using the principle of least action. Alan Guth, the Weisskopf Professor of Physics and author of The Inflationary Universe, pointed out that Dr. Feynman's major breakthroughs in quantum mechanics came 20 years after the field had been invented.

"You would think that all the new ways of thinking about it would be used up," Professor Guth said. "He didn't think that way."

Professor Guth said Feynman's major contributions came in his theory of fluidity -- the strange, frictionless behavior of liquid helium; a theory of weak interactions, the force that causes radioactive decay; and a theory of partons, the idea that there are subparticles within the nucleus of an atom. He reconstructed almost all of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics in his own way, deriving a way to analyze atomic interactions through simple diagrams, a method that is still used widely.

"He developed an incredibly useful technique to evaluate quantum mechanical properties," Professor Guth said, giving physicists a new and easier way to describe and calculate the interactions of subatomic particles.

Among his many accomplishments, Dr. Feynman worked on the Manhattan Project during the early stages of creating the atomic bomb, and he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965, along with Shinichero Tomonaga of Japan and Julian Schwinger of Harvard University. The three had worked independently on problems in the theory of quantum electrodynamics, which describes how atoms produce radiation. He was professor of physics at California Institute of Technology from 1950 until his death in 1988.

As a member of the committee that investigated the Challenger space shuttle explosion in 1986, Dr. Feynman was responsible for identifying the problem of the rubber seals on the booster rocket.

Dr. Feynman questioned the limits of science at a time when scientists rarely publicly admitted to doubts of any kind. In The Meaning of It All: The Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist, he wrote, "to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting. It usually ends in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing -- atoms with curiosity -- that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders."

Alan Lightman, the John E. Burchard Professor of Science and Writing and author of Einstein's Dreams, said when Dr. Feynman's first books came out, it was unusual for leading scientists to publicly address issues of social concern.

"Very few were interested in the effects of science on society, very few wrote for the public," he said. "Feynman was on the leading edge of the explosion in science writing of scientists for the public." While also spurred by the heightened political and social consciousness of the '60s, Lightman speculated that Dr. Feynman "broke through the stigma of spending precious time addressing the public's social concerns."

But Professor Lightman said while Dr. Feynman's writings and lectures established this new world order, he was ambivalent about ethical questions outside the scope of science, suspicious of philosophical discussions of science and viewed any stated connection between art and science as pretentious.

"He was not political," Professor Lightman said. "What Feynman did feel deeply was a very strong love of his subject and a love of explaining it at different levels."

Carl Feynman, a software engineer with an undergraduate degree in linguistics and philosophy from MIT and a master's degree in computer science, reinforced the idea that his father was unsure that many wanted to hear his ramblings on subjects other than physics. When he first gave the lectures that comprise the new book, he was planning to publish them one day, but thought at the time that he didn't have that much of an audience, Carl Feynman said.

Professor Guth said that while everyone loves the "boy wonder" stories about how Dr. Feynman mischievously cracked open safes at Los Alamos and got himself declared mentally unfit for the Army, physicists love him for the "love he contributed to physics."

A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on May 20, 1998.

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