Richard Feynman was a genius. No, not in my words but in the words of Hans Bethe, himself a Nobel laureate in Physics. He called Feynman a magician. He said “There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it. Feynman was a magician.” Richard P. Feynman can easily be counted among the most influential scientists, most important personalities of the 21st century, and indeed one of the best teachers ever to have graced the human race. Maybe the reader can already ascertain my fascination with Feynman. (Which in no small part also extends to the fact that I was born the very same year he died)
I used to be apprehensive about a science career and so very easily conformed to my parents wishes to become an engineer. (I only kind of had two choices – doctor or engineer). Thankfully during my second year in undergraduate school, one night I was bored (which used to happen a lot during the initial years) and decided to trawl through the vast collection of e-books that I had collected previously. By pure chance I settled on a curiously titled book called “Surely you are joking Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a curious character”. The title seemed odd and the name Feynman stood out, I had heard it before although I had no recollection as to where. I was just looking to kill time, but as I read on about radios and resorts, of MIT and Princeton, I was hooked. I didn’t stop reading till next afternoon ( I did go to the bathroom and had the meals), I even dropped class. It was incredible, how a person could have so much fun in his life and yet find enough time to significantly alter how a subject is perceived.
The first thing that hits you as you read Feynman is that he had a lot of fun in his life. He loved to make pranks and loved to laugh. As you read on you come across his ability to analyze and understand the problems to the very fundamentals, a nature inculcated into him by his father. The vision helped him solve many problems in life and also to understand physics to an impossible depth. Feynman succeeds where most physicists fail miserably – to look cool, something he points out in the book. He never had any qualms about asking a question, something that endeared him to Neils Bohr later in life. Although his claims about his feelings about the Manhattan Project may be suspect, one thing no one can argue against is that he loved to do what he loved, and he did it better than most, perhaps better than anybody else. Be it working on the bomb or teaching a class at Cornell, he was dedicated and loved physics. He also loved to teach Physics. He can easily be considered to be one of the most important physics teacher that there ever was. His lectures on physics have inspired thousands and millions to delve into physics (including me), and will do so for many generations to come. Even if his theories are all proved to be incorrect sometime in future what will not change is the pure brilliance in the way he went about discovering and teaching physics. The core value of his style lies in the wit, ability to make people interested, and the insight that he offered into physics. Physics by nature is not strictly mathematical, even if its language is. Physics can be intuitively visualized if you have the proper imagination. That Richard Feynman had this imagination is evident in his creative abilities in arts. His passion for the bongo drums and the fascination with painting is well documented. Feynman could look at the small details while not losing track of the bigger picture. The adventurist in him made him question every thing he learned and learn everything well. He learned trigonometry and calculus by himself, that is no mean feat.
I used to hear stories of Einstein and how he was an “old crack”, a brilliant old crack, no question about that but clearly a bit mad and quite strongly opinionated – he never changed his stance that quantum theory was wrong and that “God does not play dice with the universe”. People seem to condemn Einstein for that stance, but after reading Feynman I think Einstein was correct in trying to defend his views and that his madness must have helped him quite some bit in discovering relativity. Go back in time to 1905, everyone absolutely certain of physics, and Einstein was daring to think of physical laws in a very different “Light”, i.e. in light itself lay the clues to the universe. Can you imagine such a thought at that time? He MUST have been mad to even consider it, but consider it he did, and so we found ourselves in another age of science. Only mad and crazy people can bring about a change, people who dare to believe in something no one else will. They are the people who bring about changes. Feynman was such a person, and his drawings of quantum electrodynamic states changed how we understand quantum physics today, but he considered his contributions to physics is more in his teaching rather than his work. He loved to teach and no one taught quite like him. He makes physics beautiful, he shows how a physicist must think, he is the quintessential magician of the world of Physics.
I wish I could have learned from the great man himself, but alas! he passed away before I was born. I have tried to touch his spirit of physics through his books and audio recordings of his famous lectures, but now finally there is a platform that can bring the magic back. The Microsoft lead research project at recreating the magic of Feynman is according to me one of the best things Bill Gates has done in his entire life (the first thing was to steal the Mac from Steve Jobs). The Microsoft Tuva project aims to showcase the lesser known Messenger lectures given at Cornell. They are extractions from his own lectures and describes how fundamentals work in every physical law from Law of Gravity to the quantum theories. If you are interested in Feynman or just interested in Physics then please see the videos, they will open a new world of thought to you.
I will leave the reader in no doubt that I am a thorough idol worshiper of Richard Feynman. He is my idol and my image of a scientist. That’s who I want to be. Maybe that impossible but I will try and try my best in becoming what I believe is possible. I will urge everyone to read his books and learn more about him, more than physics it will show you what a person should look to live his life like. Enjoy it while striving to give back.