Richard P. Feynman, in full Richard Phillips Feynman (born, New York, New York, U.S.—died, Los Angeles, California), American theoretical physicist who was widely regarded as the most brilliant, influential, and iconoclastic figure in his field in the post-World War II era.
Feynman remade quantum electrodynamics—the theory of the interaction between light and matter—and thus altered the way science understands the nature of waves and particles. He was co-awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for this work, which tied together in an experimentally perfect package all the varied phenomena at work in light, radio, electricity, and magnetism. The other cowinners of the Nobel Prize, Julian S. Schwinger of the United States and Tomonaga Shin’ichirō of Japan, had independently created equivalent theories, but it was Feynman’s that proved the most original and far-reaching. The problem-solving tools that he invented—including pictorial representations of particle interactions known as Feynman diagrams—permeated many areas of theoretical physics in the second half of the 20th century.
Feynman, Richard P.Harvey of PasadenaBorn in the Far Rockaway section of New York City, Feynman was the descendant of Russian and Polish Jews who had immigrated to the United States late in the 19th century. He studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where his undergraduate thesis (1939) proposed an original and enduring approach to calculating forces in molecules. Feynman received his doctorate at Princeton University in 1942. At Princeton, with his adviser, John Archibald Wheeler, he developed an approach to quantum mechanics governed by the principle of least action. This approach replaced the wave-oriented electromagnetic picture developed by James Clerk Maxwell with one based entirely on particle interactions mapped in space and time. In effect, Feynman’s method calculated the probabilities of all the possible paths a particle could take in going from one point to another.
During World War II Feynman was recruited to serve as a staff member of the U.S. atomic bomb project at Princeton University (1941–42) and then at the new secret laboratory at Los Alamos, New Mexico (1943–45). At Los Alamos he became the youngest group leader in the theoretical division of the Manhattan Project. With the head of that division, Hans Bethe, he devised the formula for predicting the energy yield of a nuclear explosive. Feynman also took charge of the project’s primitive computing effort, using a hybrid of new calculating machines and human workers to try to process the vast amounts of numerical computation required by the project. He observed the first detonation of an atomic bomb on July 16, 1945, near Alamogordo, New Mexico, and, though his initial reaction was euphoric, he later felt anxiety about the force he and his colleagues had helped unleash on the world.
At war’s end Feynman became an associate professor at Cornell University (1945–50) and returned to studying the fundamental issues of quantum electrodynamics. In the years that followed, his vision of particle interaction kept returning to the forefront of physics as scientists explored esoteric new domains at the subatomic level. In 1950 he became professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), where he remained the rest of his career.
Five particular achievements of Feynman stand out as crucial to the development of modern physics. First, and most important, is his work in correcting the inaccuracies of earlier formulations of quantum electrodynamics, the theory that explains the interactions between electromagnetic radiation (photons) and charged subatomic particles such as electrons and positrons (antielectrons). By 1948 Feynman completed this reconstruction of a large part of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics and resolved the meaningless results that the old quantum electrodynamic theory sometimes produced. Second, he introduced simple diagrams, now called Feynman diagrams, that are easily visualized graphic analogues of the complicated mathematical expressions needed to describe the behaviour of systems of interacting particles. This work greatly simplified some of the calculations used to observe and predict such interactions.