Built on Facts

#5 – Richard Feynman

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I’m probably going to take some flack for this one. Feynman was and is so popular as a scientific writer, raconteur, and honest-to-goodness celebrity that his staggering scientific accomplishments are sometimes lost in the shadow of his own popular legend. But if we want to try to make a more-or-less honest ranking of the top ten, we have to give him the vast credit he deserves.

Feynman got his start as a physicist in roughly the most dramatic way possible. Pulled fresh out of Princeton in the middle of the Second World War, he was assigned as one of the thousands of scientists and engineers working in great secrecy on what became the icon of 20th century physics – the Manhattan Project. He was not central to the project, but he quickly established a reputation as one of the most brilliant scientists working there at Los Alamos.

So how did he get to be the 5th greatest physicist? First, there’s his Nobel Prize winning work on quantum electrodynamics. QED was the staggeringly successful extension of the quantum mechanics of particles to the quantum mechanics of fields. Its description of electric and magnetic fields has proved to fit the experimental reality exactly. Indeed its agreement with experiment is widely considered to be the most precisely verified theory in all of physics. Not even the great Dirac had managed to solve the problem of the quantization of fields despite his best efforts. Even after Feynman and his collaborators succeeded in formulating QED, Dirac wasn’t happy with its mathematically questionable renormalization methods. Neither was Feynman, actually. But renormalization works perfectly so far as we can tell, and that’s the true test of a theory.

Feynman also developed the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, which of all the various equivalent formulations of QM is the one I personally find the most elegant. It describes the time evolution of a system in terms of an integral over all possible paths, classically possible or not. While it’s not often useful for doing problems, it had great theoretical merit and it forms a foundation for many quantum field theories. In some ways it’s considered more fundamental than the more common ways of formulating quantum mechanics.

He developed Feynman diagrams and worked in superfluidity, particle decay, quantum gravity, and kept up a friendly (Maybe. Sometimes I’m not sure…) rivalry with Murray Gell-Mann over their approaches to the strong nuclear force. And those are just the high points of his physics career. Aside from physics, he became well known for his successes at everything from the drums to safecracking to art and womanizing. He was, um, a bit of a ladies man. For better or worse, there’s not many physicists who can say that.

He was a prolific writer. His humorous memoir Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! is still a classic, and his books on physics are universally regarded as among the best of the genre. In my opinion, his best is The Character of Physical Law
, but I don’t think anything he wrote is less than excellent.

When the Challenger disintegrated on launch Feynman was asked to be a menber of the investigatory commission. Had NASA brass known how this would end they might not have been so eager to invite him, but his effort was a beautiful and merciless instance of massacring bureaucracy in the service of truth. The story is well worth reading. So is his actual report.

Are there physicists who contributed more to physics? Yes. But just four, by my very unscientific ranking. Of all the scores of truly brilliant 20th century physicists, Feynman stands nearly without peer.

The list so far (click the category name for links):
5. Feynman
6. Rutherford
7. Schrodinger
8. Dirac
9. Thomson
10. Pauli

Comments

  1. #1 Dave Gill
    October 23, 2008

    No flack from me.

  2. #2 Uncle Al
    October 23, 2008

    Let us evaluate Feynman as would any Tenure Committee. His technical publication list is very modest – at most 85 refereed papers over a lifetime, averaging 1.4 papers/year,

    http://users.physik.fu-berlin.de/~kleinert/feynman/feynmanpub.htm

    He produced almost no graduate degrees. He brought in little grant funding. He was a white male sexual addict and preditor (a Howard Wolowitz!). No professional manager would let Feynman’s CV pass by the circular file. Diversity and compliance are the three cornerstones of a robust academic community. (If you cannot see the third cornerstone – no tenure track for you.)

    Look what Feynman did to the Challenger anomaly! Do you have any idea how many PERT charts and spreadhsheets had to be rewritten? How many managers had to be laterally promoted to justify their productivity bonuses? How many meetings had to be held to put things back the way they were? Oh, if it weren’t for Sally Ride sitting there smiling! Her purchased loyalties were never in doubt. 100% American!

  3. #3 Clive van der Spuy
    October 24, 2008

    As a well read layman I can only say this: Other than the sheer (almost shocking) size of the Einsteinian and Newtonian contributions I have not been influenced by ANY physicist as much as by Feynman.

    The depth of his genius is simply staggering.

    I would put him number three.

  4. #4 Bob S
    October 24, 2008

    Feynman’s behavior at the Challenger hearings was both embarrassing and offensive. He arrogantly hectored and debased decent engineers (who had been over-ruled by political hacks) in an area in which he had virtually no knowledge and in which they themselves were fully expert. His whole career was indelibly tarnished by that tantrum

  5. #5 MartinB
    October 24, 2008

    BobS – you’re kidding, right?
    Did you read his own account of the incident (in “what do you care…”), where he makes very clear that he was put on the right track by someone else? And did you read his report appendix where he clearly states that it is *not* the engineers fault and that the engineers had a much clearer understanding of true probabilities?

  6. #6 Devo
    October 24, 2008

    No flack from this engineer. Shame he didn’t make it to Tuva.

  7. #7 MartinB
    October 24, 2008

    I’m really curious now for the top 4 of the list. Einstein, Newton and probably Maxwell should be given, but who is the fourth? There are at least two more I’d like to see on a top ten list: Boltzmann and Faraday.

  8. #8 IBY
    October 25, 2008

    Jeez, there seems to be an overabundance of people who studied really small scale stuffs in this list. When are we going to get to the classical stuff? :)

  9. #9 lorne schachter
    October 28, 2008

    I had the great pleasure of being an undergraduate at Caltech while Feynman was a professor there. I learned physics from his textbooks, heard him lecture and got drunk with him at parties. Truly one of the renaissance men of our generation

  10. #10 Scott Simmons
    November 20, 2008

    Missed this when it was first posted … Definitely one of the greats. This bit:
    “Even after Feynman and his collaborators succeeded in formulating QED, Dirac wasn’t happy with its mathematically questionable renormalization methods. Neither was Feynman, actually. But renormalization works perfectly so far as we can tell, and that’s the true test of a theory.”
    reminded me of my favorite physics joke …

    How many theoretical quantum physicists does it take to change a light bulb?
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    .
    One. One to hold the ladder, one to turn the bulb, and one to renormalize the wave function.
    :-D

  11. #11 John Davis
    December 18, 2009

    I would not rank Feynman so highly. I would add Julian Schwinger
    to the list and put him at or slightly above Pauli, and put Feynman
    below. I would also move Dirac to a position higher on the
    list and replace Schrodinger by Heisenberg. I also believe that there
    should be separate lists for the experimentalists and theorists. For
    the latter:

    1. Newton
    2. Einstein
    3. Maxwell
    4. Dirac
    5. Schwinger
    6. Pauli
    7. Heisenberg

  12. #12 Denis Daly
    April 4, 2010

    I would rank Feynman only behind Einstein in the twentieth century. It is true that he was not a prolific publisher, but there was amazing quality to what he did publish. He raised the profile of physics and science, much like Hawking has done today that most likely fed into funding for large scale projects the world over. It’s a shame that he is not around today, we would have more people aspiring to become knowledge providers and less aiming to become fulltime celebrities. I think John Davis list is good, for 20th century, Einstein, 1, Feynman 2,the rest I agree with.

  13. #13 Amr Bader
    April 7, 2010

    Richard Feynman , is un-questionably one of the greatest physicists in the 20th century.He was an out of world charachter , an inspiring teacher , and a phenomenal thinker.His firece personality , combined with his appetite to understand how the universe works , was the very root of his scientific success , and this led him to other remarkable discoviries outside the boundaries of physics , like deciphering Mayan helographics , and for bieng such an exceptional scientist , he was elected as one of the Manhattan ptoject team while at a young age. Feynman without a doubt is a genuis in some sort or another , and he is un-questionably , the second greates physicist of the 20th century , second only to Einstein.

  14. #14 salam
    June 22, 2010

    1. Einstein
    2. Newton
    3. Galelio
    4. Max Planc
    5. Bhor
    6. Feynman
    7. Heisenberg
    8. Dirac
    9. Pauli
    10. Boltzman

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