Celebrating 100th anniversary of Feynman’s birth

May 10, 2018

Feynman lecturing, with six chalkboards full of equations, diagrams and notes. CalTech?   Feynman would have been 100 years old on May 11, 2018.

Feynman lecturing, with six chalkboards full of equations, diagrams and notes. CalTech? Feynman would have been 100 years old on May 11, 2018.

How to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman?

Here’s what others say and do.

 

Paul Halpern wrote a recent book on Feynma

There are those who look critically at Feynman’s life, and recognize his flaws — as Feynman did, too. This is an interesting thread.

 

Advertisements

Was Richard Feynman really an “unlikely leader?”

June 2, 2017

Richard Feynman, working with the Rogers Commission on the Challenger Shuttle Disaster, demonstrating effects of cold on the vital O-rings, with a glass of ice-water, a C-clamp and an O-ring. Open University film screen capture

Richard Feynman, working with the Rogers Commission on the Challenger Shuttle Disaster, demonstrating effects of cold on the vital O-rings, with a glass of ice-water, a C-clamp and an O-ring. Open University film screen capture

Interesting series of films from The Open University, on “unlikely leaders.” The film on Richard Feynman is a good introduction to his work in a few minutes.

Who the hell is “The Open University?” Their website offers a lot of free courses, but no clue about who finances the bunch, or even where it’s physically headquartered. I gather it’s a British group, but find little substantial information beyond that. Website copyright 2014; it’s got a modest track record.

Nice piece on Feynman. But is it a stealth piece to sucker people in? Feynman would be cautious about jumping on the Open University bandwagon. Or is Open University straight up? Enjoy Feynman.

More: 

 

 

Save


Feynman Day comes Sunday; celebrate with your mother, and fly the flag!

May 9, 2014

No, we’re not joking.

May 11 is the anniversary of the birth of Richard Feynman (born 1918, died 1988).

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman. Borrowed from Luciano’s Tumblr, LikeaPhysicist

In 2014, his birthday falls on Sunday, Mothers Day.  Mothers Day is one of the designated-by-law days to fly the U.S. flag — so fly your flag!  You can tell your mother it’s for her — but it’s also for Richard Feynman.

Why Feynman Day?  To celebrate invention, physics, interesting characters, and that essential, American quality of je ne sais quoi.

In addition to his winning the Nobel Prize for Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), Feynman popularized the critique of science and other enterprises with what we now call Cargo Cult science, or education, or whatever, where people follow the dance steps, but without the rhythm and music.

Those two things alone would make him a remarkable man.  But, like a product offered for $19.95 as a good buy in a 2:00 a.m. infomercial, with Feynman, there’s more.  With Feynman, there is always more.

I got alerted to Feynman in the first days of the old Quality Paperback Book Club, when they featured his new memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!  QPBC was hot on the book, and with a title like that, how could I resist?  When I got the book a week or so later, I read it within two days, while attending law school and working full time.  I remember Feynman.

Norton published the book — and their description, alone, should make you want to read it:

A New York Times bestseller—the outrageous exploits of one of this century’s greatest scientific minds and a legendary American original.

In this phenomenal national bestseller, the Nobel Prize­-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman recounts in his inimitable voice his adventures trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and Bohr and ideas on gambling with Nick the Greek, painting a naked female toreador, accompanying a ballet on his bongo drums and much else of an eyebrow-raising and hilarious nature.

All true, and that’s not even the half of the outrageousness, all done with great good humor, about a life lived in great good humor through what should have been a memorable age, but often was just terrifying.

I think sometimes that Feynman’s calm, alone, borne of that great good humor and insatiable curiosity,  may have gotten us through the birth of the atomic age and the Cold War.

Feynman was a giant, and we don’t revere him enough.  Consider:

  • Feynman’s high school sweetheart, Arlene, came down with tuberculosis.  He married her, and took her with him to New Mexico to make the atom bombs.  The stories of her confinement to a hospital, and the laborious trekking he had to make between Los Alamos and her bedside in Santa Fe, are touching, and heartbreaking.  It is one of the great love stories of the 20th century, certainly, and perhaps for all time.  It also provided the title for his second memoir, What Do You Care What Other People Think?
  • Every single, college-age man should read Feynman’s stories of how to date, and how to seduce women.  His approach was unique, and endeared him to women — in legend, to many women.  Feynman’s dating must have been part of the inspiration for the comedy series, “Big Bang Theory.”  Feynman’s stories are better.  (Heck, it’s even the subject of a popular, classic XKCD comic — probably only Feynman and Einstein among Nobel-winning physicists have made so much money for so many cartoonists.)
US postage stamp featuring Richard Feynman

US postage stamp featuring Richard Feynman

  • Yeah, he’s already been featured on a postage stamp, see at right.  That’s not good enough for Feynman, though — the U.S. Postal Service created a special cancellation stamp for Feynman, featuring a version of his Feynman Diagrams.

    A special postal cancel was authorized by the USPS (United States Postal Service) to honor the 80th birthday of Richard Feynman. This cancel was used in Lake Worth, Florida. For this special day the post office was renamed “Feynman Station.”

    Feynman Commemorative Cancel Feynman Diagram

    The Feynman Diagram used for the postal cancel on this envelope depicts what is known as a “bubble process.” It shows a high energy particle, for example, a cosmic ray (a) from a distant supernova, which emits a high energy photon, for example, a gamma ray (b). The photon, in turn, creates a particle (c) and an anti-particle (d) that exists for a brief moment and then recombines.

    As Feynman liked to point out, an anti-particle is the same thing as a particle with negative energy traveling backward in time (which is why the arrow at (d) points backwards, i.e. to the left). So you could say the photon created only one particle that, at first, traveled forward in time (the bottom semi-circle) and then reversed and went back in time (the top semi-circle) and annihilated itself! By inventing diagrams like this, Richard Feynman made it much easier to understand what is going on in the interactions between sub-atomic particles without getting lost in tremendous amounts of tedious math

  • Working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, Feynman developed a keen appreciation for bureaucracy and all its follies.  His vexations for the security managers are also legendary.  Here’s a quick version of one story — he asked friends and family to write to him in code, but to not include a key to the code, so he’d have to crack the code to read the letter.  Feynman could do it, but the security people couldn’t.  Hilarity ensued.
  • Feynman developed a love for the still-relatively unknown, landlocked Asian nation of Tannu Tuva.  It’s just the sort of place to appeal to a character like Feynman — so obscure most atlases didn’t, and don’t, show it at all — seemingly consumed by the Soviet Union, but held in a special status.  Home of throat singing — and almost impossible to get to.  During the Cold War, Feynman struck up correspondence with people in Tuva, to the concern of Soviet and American intelligence agencies, who seemed not to understand someone might do such thing out of curiosity.  Feynman hoped to travel there to visit new friends, but his final bouts of cancer took him before it was possible.  Tuva, famous among philatelists only, perhaps, honored Feynman with postage stamps and postcards.
  • Just try to find a photo of Feynman not smiling. The man was a joy to be around, for most people, most of the time.
  • Quantum electro dynamics?  No, I can’t explain it, either — but his work had a lot to do with how particles wobble.  I remember that because, according to Feynman, he got the inspiration for the work for which he won the Nobel while spinning plates, like a Chinese acrobat on the Ed Sullivan Show, to the delight of students in the Cornell University cafeteria, and the shock and horror of the food service people.  Who else has yet confessed to such an inspiration for a Nobel?

There’s more — a lot more.  Feynman outlined our current generation of computer memory devices — in 1959.  No, he didn’t patent the idea.  He did patent an idea for a nuclear-powered spacecraft.  Another delightful story.

Feynman in an Apple ad

Feynman was featured in print and broadcast ads for Apple — not one, but two (did anyone else get that honor from Apple?). “Think Different.” This is one of Apple Computer’s most successful advertising campaigns. The theme of the campaign is one that celebrates figures in history who changed the world by thinking differently. Richard Feynman was among the chosen figures.

Feynman served on the board that approved science books for the California school system — his stories of that work will shock some, but it will make others shake their heads as they recognize the current crop of cargo-cultists and political bullies who dominate textbook approval processes, knowing nothing at all about what they are doing, or why.

No, I didn’t forget his brilliant work on the commission that studied the Challenger disaster, for NASA. There’s so much stuff to glorify!

In history, Feynman should be remembered much as we remember Thomas Jefferson, as a renaissance man in his time, a man who put great intellect to great work for his nation and all humanity.

Feynman's second Apple ad

The second Apple ad featuring Richard Feynman. An excerpt from Apple Computer’s campaign commercial: “Here’s to the crazy ones, the misfits, the rebels, the troublemakers, the round pegs in the square holes, the ones who see things differently. They’re not fond of rules and they have no respect for the status quo. You can quote them, disagree with them, glorify or vilify them… about the only thing you can’t do is ignore them, because they change things, they push the human race forward; and while some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius, because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world are the ones who do.”

The sages say we shouldn’t have regrets, but I do have one.  When the Challenger Commission was meeting in Washington, D.C., I was working on another commission up the street.  I knew Feynman was ill, but our work was important, and we’d heard his disease was in remission.  I didn’t goof off a day and go to any of the hearings to see him, to get an autograph, to meet the man.  I though I’d have other opportunities to do that.  Now I regret not having met him in person.

In print, and in film, I know him well.  In our family, reading Feynman is something everybody does.  Feynman’s memoir was one of the last books I read to our son, Kenny, as he was growing up, and growing into reading on his own.  Even reading about Feynman, together, was an adventure.  Our son, James, took us into the real physics of Feynman, and though I struggle with it more than James, we still read Feynman, for humor, and physics.

What would be appropriate ways to mark Feynman’s birth?  At some future date, I hope we’ll have public readings of his books, showings of the documentaries about him, recreations of his lectures, perhaps.  And then everyone can get in a circle, beating drums and singing about getting some orange juice, before sending postcards to our friends in Tuva.

Richard Feynman, we still need you, and miss you dearly.

Tannu Tuva

Tuva’s capital is the delightfully-named Kyzyl. From this map, can you figure out where Tuva is, or how to get there — without Google, or Bing?

Tuva postcard honoring Richard Feynman

Tuva postcard, in honor of Richard Feynman — who loved to drum.

There will always be “More” about Richard Feynman, if we’re lucky:

Have a great Feynman Day!

Much of this is an encore post.

 


Feynmanmobile

April 8, 2014

Richard Feynman had a van.  It was decorated with Feynman Diagrams.

And now, it’s been restored.

Which of the diagrams would the Physics Commissioner have used to flash onto the clouds to summon Feynman, do you suppose?  Would Feynman ever have a sidekick?  What would the sidekick’s name be?

From a Tweet by Michael Shermer:  Feynman's van with quantum diagrams restored thanks to Seamus Blackley Ralph Leighton Edward Tufte. RF would approve! pic.twitter.com/L5vOPHLRw0

From a Tweet by Michael Shermer: Feynman’s van with quantum diagrams restored thanks to Seamus Blackley Ralph Leighton Edward Tufte. RF would approve! pic.twitter.com/L5vOPHLRw0

More:  

Full Tweet below the fold.

Read the rest of this entry »


Edward Tufte channels Richard Feynman

August 6, 2013

Tufte writes at great length — well, writes and demonstrates — about yellow warning signs.  (Yes, that Edward Tufte.)

In one of his demonstrations, the art comes from the ideas and sayings of Richard Feynman.

Edward Tufte makes art out of Feynman's ideas.

Edward Tufte makes art out of Feynman’s ideas. Sorta. Edward Tufte, Nature Cannot Be Fooled, print on canvas, 78″ x 27 ½”, edition of 3

This guy makes money doing that? What kind of charmed life is that?

More:

Just how fitting is it that Tufte uses the words of Feynman, probably more famous for Feynman diagrams than the work that got him a Nobel?

English: Picture of a Feynman diagram, inscrib...

“Picture of a Feynman diagram, inscribed by Richard P. Feynman to me [who MFB has not identified], in my copy of Volume 3 of his Feynman Lectures on Physics (Quantum Mechanics). Picture taken by self. if you can’t read the symbols, they are \gamma_\mu to \gamma_\mu and 1/q^2 .” Wikipedia image

English: Edward Tufte giving a class and holdi...

Edward Tufte giving a class and holding a scanned copy of a first edition book by Galileo. Wikipedia image


Can a person of science really appreciate beauty? (Feynman!)

June 28, 2013

Don Prothero posted this on his Facebook feed, from Unearthed Comics:

Scientists' view of vacations, Unearthed Comics, Sarah Zimmerman, copyright 2013

Unearthed Comics, Sarah Zimmerman, copyright 2013

It’s an old question:  Can one understand the science behind the beauty, and still be in awe of the beauty?

Can one understand evolution in biology, or geology, or physics, and still be in awe of the universe?

About a year ago I wrote on this issueMark Twain said no; Richard Feynman says yes, and the scientist appreciates the beauty more.

What do you think?

From my earlier post:

Mark Twain wrote about how too much knowledge can spoil beauty for a beholder. In Life on the Mississippi, Twain described how the natural beauty of the river changed for him once he started serious study to be a river pilot. That wonderful sunset revealed the river was high, hiding objects of danger. That beautiful little ripple told him a snag waited underwater to pierce his boat.

Cover of

Cover via Amazon

. . . The face of the water, in time, became a wonderful book — a book that was a dead language to the uneducated passenger, but which told its mind to me without reserve, delivering its most cherished secrets as clearly as if it uttered them with a voice. And it was not a book to be read once and thrown aside, for it had a new story to tell every day. Throughout the long twelve hundred miles there was never a page that was void of interest, never one that you could leave unread without loss, never one that you would want to skip, thinking you could find higher enjoyment in some other thing. There never was so wonderful a book written by man; never one whose interest was so absorbing, so unflagging, so sparkingly renewed with every re-perusal. The passenger who could not read it was charmed with a peculiar sort of faint dimple on its surface (on the rare occasions when he did not overlook it altogether); but to the pilot that was an ITALICIZED passage; indeed, it was more than that, it was a legend of the largest capitals, with a string of shouting exclamation points at the end of it; for it meant that a wreck or a rock was buried there that could tear the life out of the strongest vessel that ever floated. It is the faintest and simplest expression the water ever makes, and the most hideous to a pilot’s eye. In truth, the passenger who could not read this book saw nothing but all manner of pretty pictures in it painted by the sun and shaded by the clouds, whereas to the trained eye these were not pictures at all, but the grimmest and most dead-earnest of reading-matter.

Now when I had mastered the language of this water and had come to know every trifling feature that bordered the great river as familiarly as I knew the letters of the alphabet, I had made a valuable acquisition. But I had lost something, too. I had lost something which could never be restored to me while I lived. All the grace, the beauty, the poetry had gone out of the majestic river! I still keep in mind a certain wonderful sunset which I witnessed when steamboating was new to me. A broad expanse of the river was turned to blood; in the middle distance the red hue brightened into gold, through which a solitary log came floating, black and conspicuous; in one place a long, slanting mark lay sparkling upon the water; in another the surface was broken by boiling, tumbling rings, that were as many-tinted as an opal; where the ruddy flush was faintest, was a smooth spot that was covered with graceful circles and radiating lines, ever so delicately traced; the shore on our left was densely wooded, and the somber shadow that fell from this forest was broken in one place by a long, ruffled trail that shone like silver; and high above the forest wall a clean-stemmed dead tree waved a single leafy bough that glowed like a flame in the unobstructed splendor that was flowing from the sun. There were graceful curves, reflected images, woody heights, soft distances; and over the whole scene, far and near, the dissolving lights drifted steadily, enriching it, every passing moment, with new marvels of coloring.

I stood like one bewitched. I drank it in, in a speechless rapture. The world was new to me, and I had never seen anything like this at home. But as I have said, a day came when I began to cease from noting the glories and the charms which the moon and the sun and the twilight wrought upon the river’s face; another day came when I ceased altogether to note them. Then, if that sunset scene had been repeated, I should have looked upon it without rapture, and should have commented upon it, inwardly, after this fashion: This sun means that we are going to have wind to-morrow; that floating log means that the river is rising, small thanks to it; that slanting mark on the water refers to a bluff reef which is going to kill somebody’s steamboat one of these nights, if it keeps on stretching out like that; those tumbling ‘boils’ show a dissolving bar and a changing channel there; the lines and circles in the slick water over yonder are a warning that that troublesome place is shoaling up dangerously; that silver streak in the shadow of the forest is the ‘break’ from a new snag, and he has located himself in the very best place he could have found to fish for steamboats; that tall dead tree, with a single living branch, is not going to last long, and then how is a body ever going to get through this blind place at night without the friendly old landmark.

No, the romance and the beauty were all gone from the river. All the value any feature of it had for me now was the amount of usefulness it could furnish toward compassing the safe piloting of a steamboat. Since those days, I have pitied doctors from my heart. What does the lovely flush in a beauty’s cheek mean to a doctor but a ‘break’ that ripples above some deadly disease. Are not all her visible charms sown thick with what are to him the signs and symbols of hidden decay? Does he ever see her beauty at all, or doesn’t he simply view her professionally, and comment upon her unwholesome condition all to himself? And doesn’t he sometimes wonder whether he has gained most or lost most by learning his trade? (From Life on the Mississippi, Chapter 9; from the University of Virginia Library, Electronic Text Center)

Oh, it’s great literature. But I’ve always been troubled by the anti-science nature of Twain’s complaint, that if you know something really well, you’ll lose respect for its beauty. What better way to discourage a young person from learning science, from learning about the stars, the trees, the rivers and mountains?

It was not so for me. The more I learned about western trees, and grasses and wildflowers, the better I grew to love the dry, hot western desert mountains. The more I yearned to learn about the geology that carved spectacular canyons and isolated pinyon pines from ponderosa with a sea of sagebrush — and the more I learned, the more I appreciated how delicately balanced the whole thing was.

Then I found Feynman. He put into a few words what I felt. He described a continuing discussion he had with artists, about beauty and the relationship of science to the appreciation of it. He recorded an interview for the BBC in which he reiterated much of the story, with the added advantage of his wry delivery.

I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “Look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. […] There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts. (From What Do You Care What Other People Think? page 28)

What do you think? Can scientists appreciate beauty as well as artists?  How about the rest of us?

Does learning improve our appreciation of beauty as we increase our understanding of nature, or is learning a barrier to awe?


Feynman: Last Journey of a Genius (NOVA, 1998)

May 12, 2013

Feynman and the famous C-clamp experiment -- in a glass of ice water -- at the Challenger Commission.

Feynman and the famous C-clamp experiment — in a glass of ice water — demonstrating how rubber O-rings failed in launch, at the Challenger Commission. (Why are there so few good photos of this event?)

Geography and history teachers, you should watch this on the day after Feynman Day.  Can you make use of this in your classes — say, after the state tests?

How about you physics and science teachers?

English: Green: Tuvan People's Republic

Tuvan People’s Republic, marked in green. Wikipedia image

In 1998 NOVA produced and broadcast a film that rather defies categorization.  Biography? Drama? Humor? Frustrated travelogue?

“Last Journey of a Genius” tells a lot of biography of Dick Feynman, but it focuses on his unusual drive to learn about, and travel to an obscure Central Asian country/province/area/culture called Tannu Tuva.  Feynman’s close friend Ralph Leighton plays a big role in this film, too.  This film reveals more about the character of Richard Feynman, his overwhelming curiosity and humanity, than you can get any other place, including his memoirs (which every civil human should read).

NOVA captivates me almost every week.  Good fortune found me in front of a television somewhere when this was first broadcast.  For several reasons, I’ve been unable to get a VHS, or a DVD version of the story despite many attempts over the years.

But fortune and good history smile again.  Open Culture collected the film, and it’s available for free in their documentary section.

Drumming, story telling, geography, Cold War politics, ballet, more drumming, some nuclear physics, astronomy, a lot of good humor, and a plea for orange juice.  It still makes me smile.

From Open Culture:

In 1989, PBS’ NOVA aired The Last Journey of a Genius, a television film that documents the final days of the great physicist Richard Feynman and his obsession with traveling to Tannu Tuva, a state outside of outer Mongolia, which then remained under Soviet control. For the better part of a decade, Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton schemed to make their way to Tannu Tuva, but Cold War politics always frustrated their efforts. The video runs roughly 50 minutes and features an ailing Feynman talking about his wanderlust and their maneuverings. He died two weeks later, having never made the trip, though Ralph Leighton and Feyman’s daughter Michelle later landed in their Shangri-La. Her journey was recorded by the Russian service of the BBC.

The film now appears in the Documentary section of our collection of Free Movies Online.

via Metafilter

Related Content:

Richard Feynman’s Physics Lectures Online

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Hang on to this link for Feynman Day 2014 (May 11).  What’s your favorite Feynman story?

This kind of history and science is exactly the sort of stuff CSCOPE critics in Texas, and critics of the Common Core standards, worry that children will see.  Very odd, because stuff this good is not even mentioned in CSCOPE, nor in CCSS.

Tip of the old scrub brush to Kenny Darrell, who found this film and let me know about it.

More:


%d bloggers like this: