2005-06-24 / Columnists

Drawing On Science

by Stephen Yaeger

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

At the start of World War II Richard Feynman was still at Princeton University. He was asked to work on the atomic bomb project at the university, but he said no since he was still working on his thesis for his doctorate. But minutes after refusing he accepted. Years later he said, “…I began to pace the floor and think about the thing. The Germans had Hitler and the possibility of developing an atomic bomb was obvious and the possibility that they would develop it before we did was very much of a fright.”

He started on the Manhattan Project at Princeton working on the problem of separating Uranium 235 from Uranium 238 (the numbers represent the atomic weight of the elements). While working on the project he earned his doctorate in 1942 and married his high school sweetheart, Arlene Greenbaum. She had been diagnosed with having tuberculosis of the lymphatic gland shortly after he entered Princeton. Feynman continued on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos from 1943 through 1945.

While at Los Alamos Arlene’s condition worsened and she died in 1945, shortly before the first atomic bomb test. Feynman would marry twice more, having two children with his third wife, Gweneth

The atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945 ended the war and shortly after Feynman secured a position with Cornell University as professor of theoretical physics. But he found that teaching was not what he wanted. He yearned for the excitement that he always enjoyed in research, so Feynman returned to the project that he was working on for his doctorate before World War II: the quantum theory of electrodynamics. In 1949 he devised a series of diagrams, which show the track of a particle in space and time. They also provide a clear description of particle interactions. The diagrams are known as Feynman diagrams and are used by physicists worldwide. In 1950 Feynman was offered a position at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), which he gladly accepted.

For his contributions to the science of physics, Richard Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his “…fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles.” (The prize was shared with two other physicists for their work in physics.) In 1979 Feynman was diagnosed with abdominal cancer and he underwent a successful surgery.

On Tuesday, January 28,1986 the space shuttle Challenger met with disaster and Feynman was asked to be on the Presidential Committee investigating the disaster. Ironically the phone call came from a former student of his when he taught at Caltech. He spent some time investigating the O-rings used for sealing the joints between rocket parts. While he was working on the commission his health was slowly deteriorating, but he continued on in spite of it. He found that the O-rings did not perform as the NASA officials believed they should: they did not retain their shape because of low temperatures at the time of launch.

Feynman again was diagnosed with abdominal cancer in 1987 and he died in 1988.

On May 4, 2005 the Postal Service issued four First Day Covers at Yale University in New Haven, Connecticut honoring four American Scientists. One of the scientists was Rockaway’s own Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics, 1965. The stamp shows a photo of Dr. Feynman with Feynman diagrams. On May 11, 2005 the Far Rockaway Post Office (the same post office Feynman watched being built as a child) issued an Event Cover of Feynman’s stamp along with a cachet (=a mark or image stamped, printed, or drawn directly on an envelope and having a direct relationship with the stamp) of a portrait of Feynman. Not far from where he lived in Far Rockaway, just down the block from the post office, a street was named for him: “Richard Feynman Way.”

Questions/comments? E-mail Steve: wingonscience@aol.com .

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