Tej Lalvani on Richard Feynman, Radio 4, presenter Matthew Parris, and expert witness David Berman, Professor of Theoretical Physics at Queen Mary University of London.



Richard Feynman was part of the team that designed the atomic bomb. He was the opposite of a Yes man. Despite being one of the youngest physicists, he was head of calculations in the computation division (remember no computers in those days; calculations were done in the head). If a physicist had a problem at Los Alamos Feynman was the guy you’d ask. He also saved lives. The storage of fission material at Oakridge was at that time likely to lead to meltdown. A problem he recognised and had fixed.

He won the Nobel Prize for Physics but appeared underwhelmed, saying he didn’t believe in such prizes and the real job was in that eureka moment the discovery of verifiably truth.

His friend and fellow physicist Freeman Dyson called Feynman, half buffoon and half genius, only to modify his opinion to full buffoon and full genius. In his book, Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman, he gave vein to his love of stories and as well as playing the bongo drums, he was a great raconteur. One of the stories here is that Feynman liked to go into topless bars and work on physics problems. He was a trial and error guy. Sometimes it worked and he got the girl, sometimes it didn’t. His first wife, Arlene, had died of TB, and his own mother didn’t want Feynman to marry her in case he contacted the disease.

Feynman was a notable anti-authoritarian. He was asked to solve the problem of what happened when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded. He was able to show that it was down to the elasticity of a rubber ring.

He was an atheist, but that did not stop him being labelled Jewish. His parents having settled in Queens following the Russian pogroms. He gained a scholarship to MIT, but his application to Columbia was rejected because the science department had filled its quota of Jews. Princeton where he did postgraduate work asked the question if he was Jewish.  In those early years, of course, there wasn’t physics departments. As an undergraduate at MIT he had two papers published and he rewrote the Science syllabus for Cal Tech. He often joked that nobody understood quantum mechanics. The Feynman diagram made that impossibility more likely. Richard Feynman died aged 69. A true polymath and true genius.


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