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Tribute to a Fine-Man

Richard Feynman is indelible in the annals of history of time for his contributions to the fields of science and education. A brilliant scientist, a mind with an insatiable quest to learn, and an exceptional teacher. Richard Feynman was all of this and more. The unwavering spirit to do, learn, and know, and not just to know of something as Feynman himself said, earned him the most coveted award in science, the Nobel Prize in Physics in the year 1965 for his studies on Quantum Electrodynamics (QED).


“I…a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe”, said Richard Feynman. Often, we see statements of bravado, but here was a man, possibly one of the greatest scientists and physicists of all times and in the times to come, expressing a very profound understanding on the greatness of nature. And how a human, with all his tall claims of being the most developed and most knowledgeable creature, is in reality, a mere insignificant mortal. Feynman emphasized the beauty and complexity of nature in his explorations of science. From his standpoint, nature's grandeur, with its intricate laws and mysteries, served as an invitation to unravel the secrets of the universe. In contemplating the vastness of cosmic phenomena and the microscopic intricacies of quantum mechanics, Feynman expressed how the enormity of nature underscores the limited scope of human understanding. He highlighted that while we are mere observers in the cosmic drama, the pursuit of knowledge is a testament to our insatiable curiosity and our attempts to grasp the profound mysteries that surround us, acknowledging both the greatness of nature and the tenacity of human inquiry.



 

The foundation to the persona that Feynman was, was laid early in his childhood. More specifically by his father who instilled a sense of inquisitiveness and encouraged him to challenge conventional thinking. These experiences shaped the kind of science that Feynman did in the years to come.


Feynman worked on fundamental physics, understanding the interactions between light and matter. In his own words, “Study hard what interests you the most in the most undisciplined, irreverent and original manner possible”. True to that, he approached the intricacies of nature with excitement and openness.


His work and mind caught traction and subsequently, Feynman was involved in the Manhattan Project during World War II. Although Feynman played a crucial role in the development of the atomic bomb, along with renowned physicist Robert Oppenheimer, the thrill of the achievement died down with time; because of the destructive nature and harsh implications of the technology. Feynman believed that human compassion is one of the highest forms of understanding.


Feynman was a remarkable teacher we all wish we had. His lectures at the Caltech where he was a professor, are a legacy. His innovative methods of teaching, engaging the audience and providing real life examples stood out. The Feynman Diagrams are proof of how he wanted to simplify very complex concepts and make learning enjoyable and accessible to students across the spectrum.

Feynman himself said, “If you cannot explain something to a first-year student, then you haven’t really understood”. This in principle can be extrapolated to even school going students across age groups. And is a lesson to us all on approaches to learning, understanding and teaching/imparting knowledge.



 

“There’s plenty of room at the bottom – An Invitation to enter a new field of Physics”, a lecture by Feynman at the American Physical Society meeting at Caltech in the year 1959 is only proof that Feynman was a visionary, who was well ahead of his times. It would be an understatement to say that Feynman could foresee the way forward in science and pave the way for research and understanding in the field of nanotechnology. Feynman’s thoughts and ideas on manipulating matter on atomic scale to desired outcomes and to make machines on the nanoscale that “arrange the atoms the way we want” was itself beyond comprehension by many. How much Feynman wanted to inspire and motivate people in science, to do science, is best evidenced by his challenges to construct a tiny motor and to fit an entire book on the head of a pin. Incentivised by a generous cash prize of one thousand US Dollars. That it was achieved by two students shows passionate scientists want to integrate theoretical know-how with application.

Today, the principles and concepts of nanotechnology are being applied in the arenas of medicine, food, cosmetics, environment, agriculture and technology industries with applications ranging from decontamination of water to cancer drug therapy.

 

Feynman was not an ordinary human, to say the least. He possessed childlike excitement, curiosity and humility, a rare trait for a person of his calibre. Despite his remarkable intellectual prowess, Feynman approached the world with genuine modesty, recognizing the vastness of the unknown and his own limitations. His humility stemmed not from a lack of confidence but from an honest acknowledgment of the intricate mysteries that still eluded even the brightest minds. Feynman's thirst for knowledge was unparallelled, and he possessed an unbridled passion for understanding the intricacies of the universe. His eagerness to learn wasn't confined to physics but extended to everyday phenomena, making him a perpetual learner. During his graduate years, Feynman dabbled in Biology because he felt that the biology students were always discussing “very interesting things”. He worked in the lab of Max Delbruk, a biophysicist at Caltech, who was working on bacteriophages at the time. Even if not for doing actual research, Feynman thought he would just hang around the biology lab and “wash dishes” just to watch what the biologists were doing. With time, he was involved in a research project and more than any factual information about phage, bacteria or DNA, Feynman was very happy to learn some techniques in biology which were tacit knowledge. The motor skills gained while learning to hold a test tube and capping it off with one hand, Feynman used later on too. He said, “Now, I can hold my toothbrush in one hand, and with the other hand, hold the tube of toothpaste, twist the cap off, and put it back on.”

Yes, Feynman was brash sometimes, never minced words but he never hesitated to showcase that he is vulnerable too and accepted that just like his fellow humans, he too is not invincible.

 

The recognition and honours that came with his achievements were not something that Feynman aspired for. He sought immense joy in finding things out for himself.


Feynman’s stand during the Challenger Explosion Investigation displays his steadfast commitment to truth and moral integrity. The absence of any kind of apprehension during the televised demonstration of the failure of critical component O ring, is testament to his ethics.

For the unversed, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster was a fatal accident of the Space Shuttle Challenger by NASA in the year 1986. It had garnered massive attention from the public and media alike owing to the participation of a school teacher who was one of the seven crew members through the Teacher in Space program. Post the disaster, the Rogers Commission, a panel to investigate the cause, was set up. The committee comprised members who were defence personnel and stalwart scientists, one of whom was Feynman.


Through his autobiographies, “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!” and “What do you care what other people think?”, one gets a sneak peek into the life and mind of Feynman. His interactions with fellow scientists were engaging and thought provoking. He minced no words while declining a request from Francis Crick to read the latter’s works. He patiently replied to letters on life, science, education from teachers, parents, students and young scientists.


Feynman revolutionized and popularized science for generations to come.


His books are a treasure. Beyond Physics. It can encaptivate any reader who is engaged in learning and make them think. For those interested to read and know more about Richard Feynman, the following books are a great start.


Autobiographies

     1.    Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character

     2.    What do you care what other people think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character


Other Books

     1.    Perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track – the letters of Richard P    Feynman

     2.    QED : The Strange Theory of Light and Matter

     3.    The Feynman Lectures on Physics

     4.    Six Easy Pieces : Essentials of Physics explained by its most brilliant teacher

     5.    Six not-so-easy pieces : Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry and Space-time


Feynman is a lesson himself. A ceaseless one. A lesson to students, parents, teachers and scientists alike. A take-home message for everyone who interacted with him or who read about him now, leaving a mark on the lives of many people who came across him. Having known or read about him, gives us a responsibility to at least make small steps in his direction, even if/although we cannot emulate him one hundred percent. Feynman is a Fine – Man because he is the only one. Even the second best is miles away.


I wish Feynman to be the Dronacharya to the Ekalavya in me, in my pursuit of science.

 

Deepika S, Dr. H S Nagaraja

14.03.2024

 

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