Richard Feynman (1918 - 1988)
Richard P. Feynman was born in Queens, New York, on May 11, 1918, to Jewish (although non-practicing) parents. By age 15, he had mastered differential and integral calculus, and frequently experimented and re-created mathematical topics such as the half-derivative before even entering college. Feynman received a bachelor's degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939, and was named Putnam Fellow that same year. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton University in 1942, and in his theses applied the principle of stationery action to problems of quantum mechanics, laying the groundwork for the "path integral" approach and Feynman diagrams.
While researching his Ph.D., Feynman married his first wife and longtime sweetheart, Arline Greenbaum, who was already quite ill with tuberculosis. At Princeton, Robert W. Wilson encouraged Feynman to participate in the Manhattan Project. He did so, visiting his wife in a sanitarium in Albuquerque on weekends until her death in July 1945. He then immersed himself in work on the project and was present at the Trinity bomb test.
Hans Bethe made the 24 year old Feynman a group leader in the theoretical division. Although his work on the project was relatively removed from the major action, Feynman did calculate neutron equations for the Los Alamos "Water Boiler," a small nuclear reactor at the desert lab, in order to measure how close a particular assembly of fissile material was to becoming critical. After this work, he was transferred to the Oak Ridge facility, where he aided engineers in calculating safety procedures for material storage so that inadvertent criticality accidents could be avoided.
After the project, Feynman started working as a professor at Cornell University, and then moved to Cal Tech in Pasadena, Calif., where he did much of his best work including research in quantum electrodynamics, the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, and a model of weak decay. Feynman's collaboration on the latter with Murray Gell-Mann was seen as seminal, as the weak interaction was neatly described. He also developed Feynman diagrams, a bookkeeping device that helps in conceptualizing and calculating interactions between particles in spacetime, notably the interactions between electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons.
He later married Gweneth Howarth and had a son, Carl Richard, and a daughter, Michelle Catherine. In 1965, Feynman, along with Julian Schwinger and Shinichiro Tomonaga, shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for work in quantum electrodynamics. Feynman's popular lection series was published in "The Feynman Lectures," while his personal side was captured in "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"
Feynman is also known for his work on the Space Shuttle Challenger accident investigation, shocking the world by demonstrating the failure of the O-Rings. He died February 15, 1988, at the age of 69, from several rare forms of cancer.