An Odd Physicist: What Is Feynman’s Legacy?

The Nobel Prize winning physicist made his mark as an original genius.
Kashyap Vyas

Richard Phillips Feynman (1918-1988) was one of the most brilliant and original physicists of the 20th century. With an extraordinary intuition, he always sought to address the problems of physics in a different way than others.

In 1965, he received the Nobel Prize in Physics and shared it with J. Schwinger and S. Tomonaga for his work in quantum electrodynamics. Independently, the results are shown as the quantum and relativistic study of systems with electrical charges such as electrons and positrons in the interaction with electromagnetic fields or electromagnetism.


Feynman's technique illustrates his mood quite well. All his colleagues wrote long mathematical formulas whereas Richard Feynman drew, literally, the physical processes that he wanted to study, from which the calculations can be easily made with precise rules.

Currently, the use of Feynman diagrams or the variants of these diagrams is the standard procedure for calculations in the field of physics.

Richard Feynman
Source: Uuganmn/Wikimedia Commons

Feynman and the classroom space

For Feynman, the classroom was a theater, and he was an actor who had to maintain an intrigue while talking about physics and writing numbers and formulas on the board. With this intention, the classes or lectures were prepared very well like pieces of the classic theater with presentation and outcome.

His passionate way of talking about physics is probably why he became such a popular lecturer. Many of his lectures have been translated and published in the form of books, and there were even some recorded for television.

This happened, for example, with the “Messenger Conferences,” which he taught in 1964 at Cornell University. The lectures were recognized in the book “The Character of Physical Law.”

It is a novel reading, as befits a classic. To explain what physics is, Feynman reflects on general questions such as the principles of conservation, the meaning of the symmetries of physical laws and temporal evolution, and the distinction between past and future.

With his pragmatic style, Feynman always entered directly into the heart of the issue, into the audience, and the audience could grasp the problem posed.

A good example of this is when we talk about quantum physics. The whole mystery of quantum can be summed up in the wave/corpuscle duality, and the double-slit experiment contains the basic ingredients for discussing it.

Feynman does it with simplicity, and a depth that has never been surpassed and practically all the disclosures of quantum mechanics are inspired by this version.

Feynman only taught seniors and Ph.D. students with one crucial exception. In the years 1961-62 and 1962-63, he did a physics course for first and second-year students that have now become one of the most famous physics courses.

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The classes were recorded, transcribed and published under the title “The Feynman Lectures on Physics” in three volumes that continue to be edited and translated today.

Although Feynman made a great effort to find simple and clear explanations for the students, the most who benefited were the Ph.D. students, professors, and scientists who attended his course because he used a brilliant way to illustrate by example how to think and reason in physics.

The course does not present physics in the traditional way, but the vision of Feynman. Feynman thus became a great teacher of teachers as has been written many times.

Feynman was known outside the scientific fields too, thanks to the publication of two books published by his friend Ralph Leighton with the anecdotes that he told during his weekly meetings to play the bongos. The two books (the original titles are Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?) are still reissued with much success.

Naturally, the anecdotes are too beautiful to be true in all details, but faithfully convey the Feynman style and the vision he wanted to give of himself. And, it is that Feynman liked to tell funny stories in which he often had the most prominent role.

Feynman’s rise in popularity

But the true popularity came to him from participation in the commission in charge of investigating the accident of the Challenger in January of 1986. The space shuttle exploded shortly after rising, and the live broadcast on television of the accident amplified the social impact.

A good half of the second book of anecdotes is dedicated to this participation. Contrary to the president of the commission who wanted to control the whole process, Feynman did his own investigation following his own style.

Soon, he was convinced that the problem was in the rubber seals that closed the fuel tank. He saw that they could not withstand the low temperatures existing at the time of launch and decided to demonstrate it during one of the commission's public sessions.

He showed that a piece of the gasket, compressed with a gag and cooled in a glass with ice, took more than enough time to recover its form, enough time for the fuel to escape from the tank and explode. The journalists present spread their intervention everywhere and everyone understood the main cause of the accident.

Feynman became almost a popular icon after that.

Final words


If we leave all of Feynman’s aspects aside, his originality is basically his biggest legacy to humanity and future generations. If in youth this originality was above all motivated by a desire for competition, in his adulthood, it found a more interesting and profound aspect.

The laws of physics can often be formulated in many ways, different at first glance until with certain mathematical work; they are shown to be identical. Feynman said that this is a mysterious fact that nobody understands and saw a reflection of the simplicity of nature.

“If you realize all the time what's kind of wonderful - that is, if we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience - every once in a while, we have these integrations when everything's pulled together into a unification, in which it turns out to be simpler than it looked before,” Feynman aptly said in his book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.