Sunday 12 May 2024

Happy Birthday Richard Feynman 11/5/2024


In 1979, America's Omni magazine published a lengthy interview with Richard Feynman. The article was titled 'The Smartest Man in the World'. Feynman's mother was still alive at the time. When she heard her son being called the smartest man in the world, she exclaimed, "Our Richie? The World’s smartest man? God help us!"

A child remains a child in the eyes of a mother forever. If a child becomes famous, that's a different story altogether. Despite what his mother said, many people may object to calling Richard Feynman the smartest man in the world. There was skepticism then, and there still is. However, I consider him the smartest physicist. He didn't revolutionize the field of physics like Einstein did, nor did his research have an impact across all branches of physics. He pioneered quantum electrodynamics, his Feynman diagrams are a highly effective mathematical technique, and "The Feynman Lectures of Physics" are the most fundamental and smartest classroom lectures in physics. Although many lectures on physics are available and some of them are even more captivating lectures than Feynman's, he was and still is a famous and popular figure worldwide.

But why would I choose Richard Feynman if I had the opportunity to pick only one physicist? It's because of his unique style. He understood physics as if it were his own. He explained what he didn't understand bluntly. There was no hypocrisy within him. Despite being a theoretical physicist himself, he clearly stated that any theory, no matter how attractive it may be, if it cannot be proven experimentally, is not a theory at all.

He spent his entire life enjoying learning new things. His curiosity about unlocking the mysteries of nature was like that of a child. He didn't make any effort to become popular. He wasn't as popular during his lifetime as he became after his death. Even after receiving the Nobel Prize, he wasn't as much of a household name in America as one might think. In America, there are so many Nobel-winning scientists that no one really keeps track of who's who. Science was not a way of measuring popularity back then, and it still isn't.

However, two years before his death, Richard Feynman became instantly famous among the American public for uncovering the primary cause of the Challenger shuttle disaster. On January 28, 1986, during the launch of NASA's space shuttle Challenger, it exploded, killing all seven crew members. In the investigation of this incident, President Ronald Reagan formed a committee where Richard Feynman was appointed as a member, serving as a specialist scientist. Feynman was not enthusiastic about government work at all. The bureaucratic red tape and unnecessary formalities were intolerable to him. However, even with his deteriorating health due to cancer, he agreed to the President's personal request. At that time, he was battling cancer. Feynman laid down a condition - although he would be a member of the committee, he wouldn't agree with the opinions of all the committee members. He demanded the freedom to publish his personal observations alongside the committee's report. Such investigations usually take years to publish their reports, and sometimes the reports are not even published. He knew all this, and that's why he set such conditions. President Reagan accepted his terms, allowing him to work independently.

Richard Feynman accurately identified the cause of the Challenger space shuttle disaster. He also published his own report alongside the committee's report. Not only that, but he also demonstrated in a press conference, broadcasted on national television, through a simple experiment with a piece of rubber submerged in ice-cold water, how the elasticity of the rubber O-rings used in the rocket's motor was lost when subjected to extreme cold. After this incident, Feynman gained widespread recognition among the American public. However, it was only a year and a half later that Feynman passed away. Nevertheless, his popularity continued to grow.

But for some unknown reason, we didn't learn anything about Richard Feynman at that time. I was a physics student at Chittagong University for a long time. I completed my honors and master's degrees there. I was even admitted to the MPhil program. Our teachers never mentioned Richard Feynman in any class. When studying for my MPhil, our respected professor MHA Pramanik gave me a book to read a book titled "Feynman's Path Integral." But I didn't learn anything about Feynman at that time. My first acquaintance with Feynman was at the Physics Department of the University of Melbourne. Feynman's Lectures on Physics are the finest textbook of physics. Why we were not asked to read this book during our honors is a source of embarrassment for me.

Today, May 11, is Richard Feynman's birthday.

Happy birthday Feynman – the finest man!

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