The Life and Achievements of Richard Feynman

The Life and Achievements of Richard Feynman

David Abrams

WW 7/8 Class F

Sometimes a person who thinks in an unusual way can look at the world from a different point of view, or with a different level of understanding. From a young age, Richard Phillips Feynman, born on May 11th of 1918, began displaying a number of unusual traits some of which were attributed to a severe learning disability. Despite his “disability,” Feynman is a role model change maker because of how he transformed the world with his work in particle physics and his role in the development of nuclear weapons.

The first sign of Feynman’s unique traits was that he was late talker; he hadn’t yet spoken by age three. Despite his speech impairment, young Feynman displayed a precocious talent for mathematics and engineering. He enjoyed repairing household objects, and (according to some of his close friends and family members) built a primitive laboratory in his room. His parents have also reported that in sixth grade, he built a burglar alarm while they were running errands using spare parts he found in the garage. By the time he was in high school, he was experimenting with advanced mathematical concepts which were only taught to college students. Some sources claim he rederived integral calculus, logarithms, and advanced trigonometry using his own custom notation.

After Richard Feynman graduated high school in 1939, he studied at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Despite the fact that his grades in science and math were “the best that we’ve seen,” according to Princeton, he was almost rejected due to his very poor grades in writing and the arts, his religion (back then Princeton wanted to eliminate Jews in their Science Department), and his vulnerability to spelling and grammar errors. In the end, he was accepted and continued to study physics at Princeton where he got his PhD. His lectures attracted many great scientists of the time, including Albert Einstein and Von Neumann.

Feynman’s time at Princeton Princeton was when he began his most famous work: his work on nuclear weapons. At Princeton, Feynman met a man named Hans Bethe (who was researching nuclear physics), and was offered to work on the development of the first atomic bomb, more commonly known as the Manhattan Project. He moved to a secret laboratory in Los Alamos and discussed some of his work years later in his famous autobiography, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. Not all of Feynman’s work at Los Alamos has been released to the public, but we know he performed experiments that had to do with critical masses of uranium. One of his most famous experiment was later called the “Tickling the dragon’s tail” experiment.

Feynman continued to change quantum mechanics after the war ended. He taught at Cornell University, where he decided he would continue his studies. He did research into theoretical quantum mechanics and electrodynamics, which caught the attention of some other universities. He was offered a job as a professor at Cornell in 1959. He looked back to his thesis that he had witten at Princeton, and continued some of that work as well. Similarly to Feynman's time at Princeton being the height of his academics, his time at Caltech was no doubt the height of his teaching. He published many books around this time period, including The Strange Theory of Light and Matter and Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. He was also awarded the Nobel Prize for his work in particle physics.

Then, in 1978, Feynman was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. He had surgery that was very successful, and everyone believed that he would never get it again. He got a job to work on the Challenger space shuttle, but found it difficult due to his worsening illness. In 1986, doctors found that the his cancer had come back. He refused to quit his teaching job, giving lessons to his class in the hospital for the rest of his life. Feynman died a year later, on February 17,1988 at the age of 69.

Feynman may have only lived to 69, but his accomplishments in physics continued to lay a foundation of scientific research for long after. Feynman and his work are venerated by physicists across the world. Ironically, however, many of his greatest achievements are often overlooked. Although Feynman’s work in physics is astounding, his personal traits and skills are what really makes him unique. Feynman's scientific work certainly makes him a role model changemaker for somebody interested in science, but his personal achievements are something everybody can identify with. Feynman’s whole life was full of challenges: speech impairment, poor grades in writing and the arts, religious discrimination, and even cancer. He persevered through it all, teaching what he loved and doing work that he loved until they day he died. These reasons are what truly make Richard Feynman a role model change maker.


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Leonardo Motta. “Feynman, Richard Phillips (1918-1988).” 2007. Wolfram Research. March 6, 2017.

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