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The Legendary Richard Feynman

by Kathy Chambers on Fri, September 25, 2015

Richard Feynman visits National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) December 1972. Fermilab photo 72-0910-04.Richard Feynman visits National Accelerator Laboratory (Fermilab) December 1972. Fermilab photo 72-0910-04.Richard Phillips Feynman was one of the world’s great quantum physicists. He was best known for his research in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, the physics of superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, and in particle physics for which he proposed the parton model.  Many of his theories and inventions, such as the Feynman diagrams and microelectromechanical systems (MEMS), have evolved into techniques scientists use todayFeynman was able to think visually and invent problem-solving tools that forever altered the direction of theoretical physics.  His extraordinary genius along with his blunt, mischievous, and eccentric personality made him a legend.

Many of Feynman’s brilliant ideas were not readily accepted.  In the 1940s, Feynman introduced a graphical interpretation called Feynman diagrams to make sense of complex mathematical equations and visualize interactions among particles.  These diagrams offered a way to solve the most complex puzzles of theoretical physics at the time.  Yet when he first presented his diagrams at a prestigious computational seminar, attendees took the chalk right out of his hand.  Young scientists that adopted the diagrams had to use them in secret.  Feynman’s diagrams were gradually accepted and his theory of quantum physics and the Feynman diagrams earned him a share of the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics.  Today, Feynman’s diagrams have continued to evolve and physicists rely on them worldwide.

The physicist community scoffed at other Feynman ideas.  Such was the case with his concept of MEMS and nanodevices before either technology existed.  In 1959, Feynmanpresented to his California Institute of Technology undergraduates the concept of making microscale machines, and even nanoscale machines that ”arrange the atoms the way we want” and do chemical synthesis by mechanical manipulation.  It was not until the 1990s that these concepts gained interest in scientific literature.  MEMS, which are used to form small structures with the dimensions in the micrometer scale, are now being used by DOE researchers and their collaborators in inertial and pressure sensors, electronics and radio frequency filters, microfluidic devices, optical systems, photovoltaic technologies, and national security applications.

Feynman’s papers and presentations are powerful and his presentations are a delight to read because he made physics fun.  DOE databases provide a broad array of Feynman’s research papers, projects, and accomplishments from around the world.  Several of Feynman’s full-text papers and bibliographic records from DOE research projects are available in DOE’s SciTech Connect database.  The E-Print Network also provides access to Feynman’s preprints.  To understand the significant impact Richard Feynman has made on the international physics community, visit WorldWideScience.org to retrieve thousands of papers about Richard Feynman from 12 countries.  English translations are available for non-English documents.  

More about MEMS research can be found in DOE databases and in the DOE Science Showcase – MicroElectroMechanical Systems.   A layman’s overview of MEMS technology is also provided in Dr. William Watson’s In the OSTI Collections – MEMS.

Feynman’s lectures at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) became a classic textbook known as The Feynman Lectures on PhysicsIn 2013, Caltech made the book freely available atfeynmanlectures.caltech.edu.

Page last updated on 2017-03-16 09:10

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Kathy Chambers's picture
Kathy Chambers
Technical Writer, Information International Associates, Inc.