“The Greatest Mind Since Einstein”
by Rahul Subramaniam
Richard Feynman was one of the greatest thinkers of the 20th century. His intellectual achievements are legendary. Growing up in a middle-class family in New York, Feynman taught himself calculus and advanced geometry by the age of 15. He went on to receive his Bachelor’s from MIT and Ph.D from Princeton. In fact, Feynman received a perfect score on the math and physics portions of the entrance exam to Princeton, which had never been done before. At Princeton, he met the greatest minds in physics of the day, including John von Neumann, Wolfgang Pauli, and Albert Einstein, who was working at the Institute for Advanced Study.
In 1940, at the age of 22, Feynman was handpicked by J. Robert Oppenheimer (who would later become the director of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study) to join the Manhattan Project, a team of elite physicists working to construct the nuclear bomb. The project began after Albert Einstein and Leo Szilard (another notable physicist) sent a letter to US President Franklin Roosevelt notifying him that if the Americans did not build the bomb, the Nazis would. The Manhattan Project brought together the most brilliant individuals from around North America and Europe (ironically, many were Jews who fled from the Nazis in Continental Europe), and they successfully detonated the first test bomb on July 16, 1945. Upon witnessing the size of the explosion, Oppenheimer quoted a line from the Bhagavad Gita: “Now I have become Death, shatterer of worlds”.
After the war, Feynman became a professor at Cornell University and later at Caltech. At Caltech, he composed his famous “Feynman Lectures on Physics”, which are studied by every serious student of physics (including all of us here at Athena). Feynman was unique in the fact that he was both a first-rate scientist and a first-rate teacher, inspiring millions to think deeper through his lectures and books. He was interested in answering the fundamental questions of reality, in identifying the basic building blocks of the universe. Furthermore, he devised new mathematical methods that would take physics to the next level. His work led to the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1972.
However, Feynman’s brilliance did not end with physics. He was an excellent musician, mastering the bongo drums and performing everywhere from New York to Rio de Janeiro. He was also a gifted painter, an activity that would help him visualize physics problems and give him the insight needed to crack them. Finally, Feynman was also interested in transforming the educational system, and struggled to create better textbooks to teach science to high-school students. He is what we call a “polymath”, a figure whose expertise spans a wide range of disciplines, and who draws from diverse bodies of knowledge to solve complex problems. In other words, he is a modern incarnation of the Renaissance Man, an embodiment of the holistic liberal arts ideal.
In the 1980s, as he grew older, one of his friends asked him, “Richard, are you afraid of death?” He responded, “As a scientist, I don’t have any objective knowledge about what happens after death. However, what I know is that if I share a meaningful part of myself with as many people as possible, some of me will live on even after this body passes.” Richard Feynman died on February 15, 1988. However, he will live on through his works, and through the millions of lives he touched with his wit and wisdom.
So what does this mean for young students? What lessons can we draw from Feynman’s example? Feel free to add your observations in the comments.
Here are a few:
1. Self-awareness: Be extremely clear about what you know and what you don’t know. Many students pretend to understand something when in fact they don’t. Conversely, many students believe they don’t know how to do something when in fact it’s within their grasp. Both must be avoided. Feynman never hesitated to say, “I don’t know, teach me”. It was this attitude that was partly responsible for his remarkable ability to absorb and organize information. Furthermore, he believed that the test for whether he understood something (a concept in physics, for example) was whether he could clearly explain it to an 18-year-old college freshman. Good students also strive to explain difficult concepts to their parents, siblings or friends, and thus quickly identify the gaps in their learning.
2. Curiosity: Life gives you what you ask of it. To quote a line from the bestselling novel The Alchemist, “When you want something, all the universe conspires in helping you to achieve it”. Curiosity is essentially the deep, driving desire to KNOW, a necessary condition for profound knowledge. Feynman was not satisfied until he understood a concept from top to bottom, inside-out, and upside-down. He wanted to know how physics principles were derived. He wanted to know their exceptions. He wanted to know their implications. He wanted to know their applications. He wanted to connect them with principles in other subjects. This boundless intellectual hunger fueled his constant progress, and is characteristic of good students in any discipline.
3. Integrity: Feynman always put science above self. In the hyper-competitive world of academia, it is tempting to get ahead by pulling others down. However, Feynman was concerned only with the pursuit of truth and the advancement of humanity through science, not with awards or other decorations. The day he won the Nobel Prize was like any other day; it did not make the slightest difference to him or his work. Similarly, good students do strive for excellent grades and other academic honors, but they also bring an integrity to the process, valuing learning for the sake of learning, and displaying gratefulness for the educational opportunities presented to them.