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Great Minds-Richard Feynman — By Agastya Rana

Welcome to the inaugural edition of Photon’s very own column — Great Minds. We will take you through a biographical journey of one eminent physicist every issue, and we will discuss their own unique contribution to their field.

Our first installment of Great Minds highlights one of the most eminent physicists of the 20th century, who pioneered a formulation of Quantum Mechanics, developed Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) and worked further on particle physics. If you don’t know which fields we are referring to, please do read on. Feynman was one of the few great minds in physics who took an active interest in popularizing physics, both in the classroom and for the general public. Most famous among undergraduates for his extensive and comprehensive, 3 volume Feynman Lectures on Physics, Feynman revolutionized the teaching and introduction of physics, making it much more of a creative and unknown science than the formulaic procedures learnt in school might suggest.

Feynman’s intellect showed at a young age — a young engineer, Feynman created a home burglar alarm system during his high school years. He taught himself all of pre-calculus and calculus when he was 15, and before entering college, he was playing with a formulation of the half derivative — when taken twice, the result is the ordinary first derivative. Later in college, he received the highest score in the most challenging math exam there is — the Putnam Mathematics Competition. At MIT, his undergraduate major shifted from math to electrical engineering and eventually settled on physics — as he started working in quantum mechanics (the mind-bending science of the very small). After graduating from MIT, he achieved the full score in the Princeton graduate school entrance exams in Physics — which was unheard of at the time. He received a PhD from Princeton with a doctoral thesis that laid the groundwork for an entirely new formulation of quantum mechanics which drew parallels with classical mechanics itself. Feynman later worked at Cornell and CalTech, receiving multiple accolades for his work. He also spent a brief period during World War II working on the Manhattan Project, which he contributed to greatly even though he was at heart a theoretical physicist.

Many compared Feynman to Einstein and Lev Landau (who you might see featured here in the next edition), for his grasp on complex theoretical physics as integrated seamlessly with maths. His interpretation of Quantum Mechanics introduces many far-fetched ideas, so intriguing that they inspired the next generation of physicists (ourselves included) enter the field. According to his formulation, the positron (the antiparticle of an electron — the same mass but the opposite charge) was not a separate ‘anti-particle’ of the electron as was the consensus at the point in time, but instead is simply an electron moving backwards in time. By introducing the idea of moving along both directions in time — with mathematical justification of course — Feynman broke the stigma of time only being able to move in one direction, which puzzles many physicists to this day.

Continuing his work on quantum mechanics, Feynman played a major role in reconciling theories of QM and Special Relativity in a brand new branch of physics — or what he calls the ‘jewel of physics’ — called quantum electrodynamics. During his work in this field, he invented a new visualization format to understand the interactions between leptons and fermions (ordinary ‘particles’) as mediated through bosons (force-transmitting particles), which now find ubiquitous usage in high school and university classrooms as Feynman diagrams.

Nevertheless, as mentioned above, we believe that Feynman’s greatest contribution to physics were his timeless Lectures which were delivered to a group of lucky CalTech students and were later transcribed for the public, summarizing all that there is to know in physics into just three concise volumes — volumes which have spurred budding minds to pursue the elegance and simplicity that is plentiful within the pages of those books. If physics is something that you feel might interest you, I urge you to give these books a read. Even if you take more of a casual interest in science, you might enjoy his semi-biographical books, including my personal favorite, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman.