2005-04-22 / Community

Former Rockaway Resident To Be Honored By USPS May 11

By Howard Schwach


  • Richard Feynman, a man who grew up in Far Rockaway and graduated from Far Rockaway High School, received perhaps the greatest honor of his life when he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965.
  • On May 11, Feynman, who died in 1988, will receive another honor when the Unites States Postal Service unveils a stamp in his honor at the Far Rockaway Post Office.

    In addition, if the move is approved by City Councilman James Sanders, the corner of Mott Avenue and Cornaga Avenue in Far Rockaway will be renamed for the famous former resident, who worked on the Manhattan Project during World War II.

    Feynman’s childhood home was at 792 Cornaga Avenue, in the area that is today called “West Lawrence.”

    According to published reports, his father, Melville, was the most influential mentor in his young life. It was his father who, at his birth determined that, if the child turned out to be a boy, then he would grow up to be a scientist, a dream he had always held for himself.

    After graduating from Far Rockaway High School, class of 1918, Feynman attended college as a physics major. He finished his first four years at MIT, one of the best schools for phy0sics, then and now, and then moved on to Princeton as a graduate student. During this time in his life he became engaged to marry Arline, which they’d do after completion of his Ph.D.

    However, Arline at one point started to display serious symptoms of some sort of illness. After some time she was positively diagnosed with tuberculosis, and was not expected to live too many more years. Richard figured that there was only one right thing for him to do, and that was to marry her as soon as possible. He wanted to be responsible for her welfare as much as he could muster. Although his family advised against it because of his unfinished Ph.D., the two were married in a simple civil ceremony.

    It had been known for some time by scientists that there is a tremendous amount of energy trapped in the nucleus of every atom, just waiting to be liberated and put to work. In particular, it was estimated that at the very least extremely powerful explosives could be made from this principle, and work was being done in this direction both in Nazi Germany and, on some smaller scale, in the U.S. But when the U.S. eventually entered battle during the Second World War it was feared that Germany was very far along in the engineering of nuclear bombs. The United States then started its now famous Manhattan Project with the purpose of perfecting nuclear bombs ahead of the axis powers so as to ensure victory before it was too late. Toward this end the U.S. Army established the cloistered research city of Los Alamos, well into the New Mexico desert. The best mathematicians, physicists and chemists were encouraged to join the project and do what they alone were capable of — the perfection of the weapon.

    Richard Feynman, then still at Princeton, had secured some notoriety among his peers as to his exceptional talents in math and physics, and the physicist Robert Wilson gently prodded him to join what was considered one of the most vital wartime projects of all. At first Feynman’s reaction was that this wasn’t the sort of thing he’d be interested in, but the thought nagged at him that the Nazi’s might create their own nuclear device first and use it to disastrous ends. So he took the job, moving himself to Los Alamos and Arline to a hospital in Albuquerque for the care of her illness.

    During the week he worked on bomb theory, and on the weekends he made his way to the hospital, quite a few miles away, to be with his lady Arline. During this time he acquired what was to become a definitive fascination with safecracking. The various documents generated by the bomb work were often kept in filing cabinets or combination safes, and there was an unspoken, tacit assumption as to the safety of these sensitive and dangerous secrets.

    Feynman was certain that these measures were far from adequate to safeguard the bomb from the wrong hands, and he set out to demonstrate this by becoming an expert safecracker. Reading books by pros and developing his own methods, he eventually became notorious for his ability to open safes.

    In the months just near the end of the war Arline’s tuberculosis advanced to a desperate degree. In July, 1945, just before the very first test of the bomb, she finally passed away due to her illness. Richard was fortunate enough at least to be by her side at the moment. He made his way back to Los Alamos and temporarily put it out of his mind by further immersing himself in his work. The bomb was soon finished and he was privileged to witness the detonation of the world’s first nuclear bomb.

    After the conclusion of the war Feynman moved on. He accepted a professorship with Cornell University, but fell into somewhat of a slump. He lost his inspiration and confidence as a physicist, and speculated that perhaps his better days were behind him. So it surprised him to no end that he would get solicitations from competing universities to more lucrative professorships at other schools. Finally he even received an invitation to the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton. Only the best minds were offered posts there. Einstein, for example. It was then that one of his personal revelations reportedly occurred to him. He realized then that it was none of his concern what others expected of him.

    Feynman died on February 15, 1988.

    Feynman will also be honored as one of three Nobel Prize Laureates at the opening of the Rockaway Museum’s new exhibit on Far Rockaway High School in May.

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