2005-05-27 / Columnists

Drawing On Science

Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1965 (Part I)

Richard P. Feynman was born in Manhattan May 10, 1918. His sister, Joan, was born nine years later and in 1928 the family moved to Far Rockaway. Early on Feynman had an interest in science, especially physics, which was encouraged by his father. He spent much of his time studying the sciences from the Encyclopedia Britannica. Throughout the years his obsession with learning enabled him to teach himself elementary mathematics, algebra, trigonometry, and calculus, all before taking the subjects in school. He performed many science experiments in a lab, which he had set up in his room. He experimented with electricity, especially wiring circuits with light bulbs, he took apart radios to repair damaged circuits, and even invented a burglar alarm.

By the time Feynman entered Far Rockaway High School his interests in mathematics and science overshadowed his interests in the arts. Years later he explained, “I always worried about being a sissy. I didn’t want to be too delicate. To me no real man ever paid any attention to poetry and such things.” He enjoyed entering math competitions during his high school years and in his final year at Far Rockaway High School he won the New York University Math Championship.

Upon his graduation Feynman applied to a number of universities, but contrary to what one would think, he was rejected by all. There were two reasons for this: his performance in subjects other than math and science was not good and he was Jewish. During those years universities had a quota on the number of Jews they admitted. He never forgot the $15 fee charged by Columbia University for their entrance exam. He was not accepted and the fee was never returned. This rejection, he knew, had to do with his religion. He subsequently entered MIT in 1935. He started with courses in mathematics, but switched to electrical engineering and finally to physics. The physics course Feynman took in his second year, Theoretical Physics, was normally geared for graduate students. He also wanted to study quantum mechanics, but because there was no course being offered, he began to read texts on the subject.

During summer vacations Feynman always returned home each time applying for a position with the Bell Telephone Laboratory. Despite the highest recommendations he was never hired—he believed for no other reason but that he was Jewish. For his doctorate it was suggested that Feynman apply for entrance to Princeton University, but again his grades in history, fine arts, and literature were not up to par and as Harry Smyth of Princeton wrote, “Is Feynman Jewish? We have no definite rule against Jews, but we have to keep their proportion in our department reasonably small because of the difficulty of placing them.”

With the insistence of MIT’s head of physics, Professor John Slater, Feynman was finally accepted at Princeton for his doctorate. His thesis was in quantum mechanics. The first seminar he gave at the university was to an audience which included, among others, Albert Einstein. The United States entered World War II in 1941 and Feynman’s career was to soar to new heights. (Look for Part 2 next month.)


E-mail Steve: Drawingonscience@ aol.com

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