Not an Ordinary Genius

Why Feynman?

Richard P. Feynman received his Nobel-prize in 1965 for his work mainly concerning quantum electrodynamics. QED continues to explain almost all natural phenomena except gravity and strong interactions in atomic nucleus. So, QED is a topical explanation of nature, regardless of your previous knowledge. (Probably I know about QED just as much as you.)

Etelä-Suomen Sanomat (local newspaper) recently pointed out that quite a large number of Nobel laureates happened to be Jewish. How is this accounted for giving that Jews make only 0.2% of the world’s population. Should there be a numerus clausus for choosing Nobel prize winners just like it was in Columbia university at time Feynman tried to enter that university? Of course no.

This very year, two biographies about Feynman has been published; one written by M. Krauss (Quantum Man), and one comic drawn by Jim Ottaviani. Feynman himself did not write very much, especially not an autobiography. He emphasized that he had never read an autobiography. Despite that he gave interviews, and there are a lot of lectures available as videos in the Internet. For example his lectures in New Zealand, Auckland, 1979, has been taped. When I listened to these lectures, I (almost) realized that I may understand something about his lectures concerning, say, motion of photons or light in general.

Feynman was a very curious character among geniuses. Maybe I can write that he was (to quote Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland) “curiouser” than not many. His colleague from times in Los Alamos, a heavy weight physicist Hans Bethe (he received his Nobel in 1967 for his work explaining how stars produce their energy) 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.”

In resolving problems Feynman was very different. He coined first the solution and after that began to ponder, how to get there starting from known premises. For him the result was something that matters; not the method, how to get it.

Curriculum Vitae

Richard Phillips Feynman was born in 1918 into a Jewish family (like his contemporaries Niels Bohr and Robert Oppenheimer) in Far Rockaway, Long Island, New York.

At school his special talent was obvious especially in math contests. (However, his IQ was measured at a very modest 125.) Every question in those contests contained a small trick; you could use algebra, but without knowing the trick, you always lost. One of the problems could be (told in Gleick’s account): “You are towing a boat upstream. The river flows at three miles per hour; your speed against the current is four and a quarter. You lose your hat on the water. 45 minutes later you realize it is missing and try to catch your hat by rowing downstream. How long does it take to row back to your floating hat?” The guy who makes only a gesture for starting algebra with his pen has already lost out. Feynman answered immediately: 45 minutes. (You may ask yourself why algebra is not needed?)

At elementary school Feynman started grabbling with calculus. When he borrowed library books teaching calculus, the librarian asked why a little boy like Richard is reading this kind of book. Ritty said they are for my father. His father’s job was selling uniforms to the police and army.

At the weekends Richard walked with his father in the woods of Catskill Mountains. There he attended many lectures given from his father: “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird”. His father was ready to explain everything about the nature in their immediate surroundings and wider implications. For example he would tell something about dinosaurs. If such an animal was standing in their backyard its head would have reached the second floor, Richard’s room. The head could not fit through the window, because the head was too wide. His father’s practical thinking reflected Richard’s later works in science. When Richard was not yet born, his father’s opinion was, he would be a scientist (knowing not was Richard a boy or a girl).

When playing with a small wagon, Richard asked his father:”Why the ball in the wagon collides on the left side, when the wagon starts moving to the right.” His father had a deeper insight: “The ball itself doesn’t move because of inertia it has, it stays where it is; only the wagon moves.” Richard’s next question: “What is inertia?” His father answered: “nobody knows.”

At the university: Ivy League and numerus clausus?

After elementary school, a natural choice for Feynman would have been Columbia University. However, their numerus clausus for Jews, ten percent, was filled. (In other Ivy League Universities: Brown, Cornell, Dartmouht, Harvard, Princeton, Pennsylvania, Yale, and Harvard, numerus clausus were in use. The last to renounce it was Harvard, in 1970. Numerus clausus for Afro-americans was 0%.) So, MIT in Boston got this brilliant student. His professor was John Slater. At MIT his superior performance in mathematics and physics was noticed; there were even negotiations, that Feynman could complete is BA in three years instead of the usual four.

Feynman was thinking that he could do his PhD at MIT. However, Slater was wiser: “You should see the world”. Thus the studies for his PhD started at Princeton under the guidance of John Wheeler.

In 1941 Feynman had the honor to give a seminar about his studies. This was quite exceptional. Usually seminars were held by visiting “big shots”, not by a mere student. Eugen Wigner (Nobel prize in physics, 1963) who arranged the seminar, said that he had invited Russel (a famous astronomer of the day) to the seminar. Then Wigner said that Einstein (Nobel-prize 1921) could pop in. If this wasn’t enough, Wigner said that John von Neumann (a very famous mathematician, no Nobel-prize, because for mathematicians there aren’t any) was interested. If Feynman’s ears weren’t red enough, Wigner said “And Professor Pauli is visiting from Switzerland, so I’ve invited Professor Pauli to come.” Pauli was a famous character who had invented the so called Pauli’s  Principle saying that no two electrons in an atom can be of the same energy level at the same time; he received his Nobel in 1945.

Feynman himself said: ”By this time I must have turned green.” Wigner tried to console him: “If Professor Russel falls asleep – and he will undoubtedly fall asleep – it doesn’t mean that the seminar is bad. If Professor Pauli is nodding all the time, and seems to be in agreement as the seminar goes along, pay no attention. Professor Pauli has palsy.” (Pauli had his own scale in gauging lectures: “ganz falsch” - totally wrong, extremely wrong, not even wrong.)

Feynman went on; Pauli sometimes interrupted him thinking there was something wrong. At the end, when Pauli said “I do not sink dis teory can be right, because of dis, and dis, and dis”, and turns to Einstein saying “Don’t you agree, Professor Einstein.” Einstein didn’t agree, but said “I find only that it would be very difficult to make a corresponding theory for gravitational interaction.” (Feynman wrote: "gravitation was his baby").


Feynman’s achievements


Feynman became a member of Oppenheimer’s group in Los Alamos in 1942. The task was to build the first atomic bomb in the world, before the Germans. Feynman was the leader of the calculation department under big boss Bethe. The critical mass of the bomb should be revealed, i.e. how much U235 isotope of uranium was needed, or more precisely: what amount definitely doesn’t explode and what amount definitely will explode. As we know the test bomb succeeded, and the next bombs were destined for Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

After Los Alamos, Feynman had to return to civil life. He chose Cornell University, where he continued with Dirac’s equations concerning quantum electrodynamics. Dirac had coined his equations in 1928. However, there were some flaws: sometimes Dirac’s equation gave infinite or inaccurate results. Dirac himself knew this in advance, and said that further development is needed.

Feynman began wrestling with Dirac’s equation. Using path integrals he succeeded in eliminating infinities. The major question was how an electron acts with itself or does it act at all, and seemingly infinitive energy of the vacuum. It took Feynman seven years to arrive at his solution. Around the same time his colleagues Julian Schwinger, and, in Japan, Sin-Itiro Tomonaga independently of each other arrived at the same result. This trio received their Nobel prize jointly in 1965 (Tomonaga couldn’t personally come, instead, the ambassador of Japan received Tomonaga’s prize. ). (You are not supposed to think that I understand anything of Dirac’s equations; I haven’t even seen them.)

More visible were Feynman’s (re)invented graphs/diagrams. Because it is not so important, if an electron is in the East or in the West (meanwhile it could be found behind Andromeda galaxy – who knows), these diagrams show space in one dimension and time in the other. Thus moving electrons could be easily put on paper.

An Unordinary Professor

In every book about Feynman, it is also told of his talent, playing bongo drums. That’s why I’m not writing a word about bongo drums. Swede who was writing an account about Nobel laureates, asked Feynman to say something about his drumming. Feynman answered with a lukewarm letter: “My purpose is to do research in physics. You may go to hell.”

A colleague of his, somewhat unpleasantly, said that a big portion of Feynman’s energy was wasted, because he always tried to invent new anecdotes about himself. There are a lot of anecdotes told by Feynman. They are always very positive, and all of them clever, yet with a point. They were never offensive or spiteful. As an example, in an interview, Feynman recalled upon arrival at the airport in Raleigh discovering that there were two North Carolina Universities and he did not know which one was hosting his conference. The conference has started the previous day. He got an idea: “Listen, I said to the dispatcher. The main meeting began yesterday, so there were a whole lot of guys going to the meeting who must have come through here yesterday. Let me describe them to you: They would have their heads kind of in the air, and they would be talking to each other, not paying attention to where they were going, saying things to each other, like ‘G-mu-nu, G-mu-nu.’ His face lift up, ‘Ah, yes,’ he said, ‘You mean Chapel Hill’ “.


What is science?

It could be argued that Western Science dates from Eratosthenes in Greece, who (approximately) measured size of the Earth in about 240 BCE (he thought that Earth is a sphere). He measured the length of the shadow of a long stake at the same time in Athens and in Alexandria and using trigonometry calculated the circumference of the Earth. At that time trigonometry was quite hard, because all calculation had be made based on 60 as cardinal.

In 1600, Englishman, William Gilbert, was studying magnetism. After 18 years of research he published a book, De Magnete Magnetisque Corporibus, et de Magno Magnete Tellure. The importance of the book lays not in  magnetism itself, but in methods scrutinizing nature. Gilbert made countless experiments, and tested his theories against results his experimets gave. In this way Gilbert invented the scientific method. He wrote, regarding his experiments, that ”whosoever would make the same experiments.”

Many times I’ve heard some people say, ”science doesn’t know everything”, or not even wrong, ”science always says the absolute truth”.

Hearing Feynman’s testimonies and reading his biography (any of them), it becomes clear his uncertainty in the role of a scientist and in search of truths. Ultimately, the definition of science is that not a single result can be absolutely truthful; instead the result of an experiment is true in a range of probability, say, 5% (maybe more or maybe less). When somebody, whosoever, claims that his conclusion is absolutely a fact, he or she is not a scientist.

Feynman squeezed his thoughts about science into the aphorism: “Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show.” (though he didn’t liked philosophy)

In his speech to the science teachers (National Science Teachers Association, 1966, New York City) he says, among other things, about science: “When someone says, ‘Science teaches such and such,’ he is using the word incorrectly. Science doesn't teach anything; experience teaches it. If they say to you, ‘Science has shown such and such,’ you might ask, ‘How does science show it? How did the scientists find out? How? What? Where?’  It should not be ‘science has shown’ but ‘this experiment, this effect, has shown.’ And you have as much right as anyone else, upon hearing about the experiments -- but be patient and listen to all the evidence--to judge whether a sensible conclusion has been arrived at.”


My own physics


I got acquainted with mathematics, physics, and especially chemistry, because my mother was a teacher of those subjects. In 1956, I burned the surface of our mirror table with help of pure nitric acid when polishing my old coins. I dropped a copper coin into the nitric acid solution, and from the bowl a cloud of colorless nitric oxide (“laughing gas”) foamed (with the solution) that immediately oxidized to make brown nitric dioxide. I picked the coin out from the acid with my bare hands. My fingers were yellowish many weeks after that maneuver, much more yellowish than ever after smoking cigarettes (yes, I smoked). I studied physics for a short time at university, but because the lecturers were so dull, I left the subject with delight. Many years later I became more interested in, in what direction physics is advancing. Exciting days may be ahead, e.g. can they find Higgs’ boson in CERN and what is the mass of that particle? Many more problems are still open – for example: what is the so called  “dark matter” or “dark energy”, and why are distant galaxies accelerating away from each other – at this point (just like Feynman’s father) “nobody knows”.

For making a short digression, during the ceremonies where Richard Phillips Feynman was receiving his Nobel-prize, I was at the same evening singing in Texas, Harlingen, with 60 other students. The conglomerate was Helsinki University Chorus.

My interest in the “World System” began when my mother bought me a book from sales. The book was: “In search of the secrets of atom”, and it was written by a German, Schenzinger. I was 14 years old. Before that my most exciting experiences among books were some accounts of Zane Grey; his books described encounters between Indians and intruders in Canada. Those fictions turned palefaces after I’ve read that book about atoms.


Sister Joan


Maybe it was the example of her ten years older brother that put Joan Feynman also in physics. She was researching (among other things) solar winds and magnetosphere. Her last job was to work as a scientist in NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory. She retired at the age of 75. After that she has published her investigations still. Concerning her brother Joan Feynman wrote me (eMail 15.11.2011) ”I would like you to know that in addition to everything else he was a very good brother who encouraged me to go into physics when it was so very rare for a woman.”


Links to Feynman’s writings can be found in

Link to Feynman’s Lectures, please search (e.g.) using Google “Richard Feynman Lectures Auckland”.

 (My quotations are mostly from the books of Gleick and Krauss, and from Feynman’s interview “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman”.)


  • Bill Bryson: Lyhyt historia lähes kaikesta. WSOY 2005.

  • Kari Enqvist: Näkymätön todellisuus. WSOY 1997. Luku Ääretön muuttuu äärelliseksi. Lambin siirtymä - Richard Feynman ja Julian Schwinger - Virtuaaliset hiukkaset ja niiden rooli - Kvanttikenttäteorian ennusteet

  • Kari Enqvist: Suhteellisuusteoriaa runoilijoille. WSOY 2005

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  • Richard P. Feynman: Fysiikan lain luonne. Suom. Kimmo Pietiläinen. Ursa 1999.

  • Richard P. Feynman: ”Laskette varmaankin leikkiä, Mr. Feynman!”. Suom. Kimmo Pietiläinen. 1997.

  • Richard P. Feynman: The Meaning of It All. Penguin 1998. 

  • Richard P. Feynman: ”What do You care what other People think?”WSOY 1998.

  • Richard P. Feynman: QED. Valon ja aineen ihmeellinen teoria. Art House 1991.

  • Richard P. Feynman: Six Easy Pieces. Penquin Books. 1998.

  • Richard P. Feynman: Six Not-so-easy Pieces. Penguin Books. 1997

  • Francis Frick: Elämän synty. Life itself, 1981, WSOY 1983.

  • James Gleick: Genius. RICHARD FEYNMAN and modern physics. Abacus. 1. painos 1992 (2011).

  • John Gribbin: Science. A History 1543-2001. Penguin Books 2003.

  • Jim Ottaviani: Feynman. First Second 2011 New York & London.

  • Oiva Ketonen: Suuri maailmanjärjestys. Otava 1948.

  • Lawrence M. Krauss: Quantum Man. Richard Feynman’s Life in Science. ATLAS&CO New York – London. 2011.

  • Jeffrey Robbins: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. Penquin Books 2001

  • K.A. Schenzinger: Kohti atomin salaisuutta. Pellervo-seura 1952.