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Richard Feynman, Physicist and Humorist

Richard Feynman was most likely killed by the first atomic bomb explosion in Trinity, New Mexico in December 1942, even though it took 46 years for him to die from it in 1988. He was one of the greatest theoretical physicists of all time. He won the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics for his discoveries in quantum electrodynamics and could have won other Nobel Prizes for other discoveries. He also discovered new ways to use quantum computing and nanotechnology.

He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, and in the 1980s, he solved the mystery of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. He was a beloved professor who created new ways to teach physics to college and graduate students. He wrote The Feynman Lectures on Physics which sold two million copies in English, one million copies in Russian and a half million in other languages. He created Feynman diagrams, pictures of the behavior of subatomic particles, that are still used for string theory and M-theory.

Early Life
Richard Phillips Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, New York in May 1918. By age 15, he had taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, infinite series, analytic geometry and differential and integral calculus. He won the New York University Math Championship with a score much higher than any one else in the competition.

He was not accepted at Columbia University because of their Jewish student quota, so he went to Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He was the first applicant ever to attain a perfect score in math and physics on the graduate school entrance exams to Princeton University. Seated at the first graduate student seminar he gave at Princeton were three of the top physicists in the world: Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, and John von Neumann. He received a Ph.D. from Princeton in 1942 and was recruited to help build the atomic bomb at the Manhattan Project.

A Tragic Love Life
At Princeton, he married Arline Greenbaum who suffered from tuberculosis. She was so sick that she couldn't stay with him in New Mexico and had to be hospitalized a hundred miles away in Albuquerque. He was devoted to her and often drove two hours to visit her in a car borrowed from Klaus Fuchs, who was later found to be a Soviet spy. There was no effective treatment for TB at that time, and she died in 1945, which sent Feynman into a deep depression.

In June, 1952, he married Mary Louise Bell of Neodesha, Kansas for a short time. She wrote in her divorce complaint: "He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night." She also complained about his banging constantly on his African drums. She said that when she disturbed his calculus or drums, he would throw things at her and break furniture.

As a single man after his divorce, he went wild. He dated undergraduates at Cal Tech and show girls and prostitutes in Las Vegas. He considered himself an expert on dating and offered advice in a book, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman, which became a New York Times bestseller.

In 1960 at age 42, he married 26-year old Gweneth Howarth and stayed with her for the rest of his life. She gave birth to a son, Carl, in 1962, and they adopted a daughter, Michelle, in 1968. Feynman helped develop the first massive parallel computer. His son Carl worked on the software that ran it.

The Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster
In 1986, he alone discovered the reason the Challenger space shuttle exploded 73 seconds into its flight, killing the crew of seven astronauts. The rubber O-ring seals in the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters failed because of freezing temperatures outside. He held a press conference in which he compressed a sample of an O-ring in a clamp and then placed it in a glass of iced water. It stayed compressed, showing that the disaster was caused by the primary O-ring being deformed by the unusually cold weather at Cape Canaveral.

Radiation Exposure
In December 1942, he was present at the first atomic bomb explosion in the Trinity bomb test in New Mexico. He claimed that he was the only person who saw the explosion without the very dark welder's glasses that were given to all the physicists present on that day. He thought that the truck's windshield would block the ultraviolet radiation from the blast.

Exposure to incredibly high doses of irradiation can cause cancer many years later. In October 1979, Feynman told his son that he found a football-size tumor in his belly. Surgeons removed a six-pound cancer, called myxoid liposarcoma, that had already destroyed his left kidney. Even when the tumor appears to have been removed completely, another tumor may form in a different place, usually spreading to the lungs or liver. The five-year survival rate is less than 50 percent. He was then diagnosed with a second cancer called Waldenström's macroglobulinemia, a non-Hodgkin lymphoma cancer of his white blood cells, that grows and spreads slowly. He continued to work at Cal Tech and taught classes until two weeks before his death.

In October 1987, he had surgery for a second abdominal cancer which was followed by kidney failure. 'In February 1988, he went back to the hospital but was in such great pain from his failed kidneys that he refused further dialysis or surgery. He died on February 19, 1988. His last recorded words were "I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring."

Richard Feynman
(Born May 11, 1918. Died February 15, 1988

April 13th, 2014
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About the Author: Gabe Mirkin, MD

Sports medicine doctor, fitness guru and long-time radio host Gabe Mirkin, M.D., brings you news and tips for your healthful lifestyle. A practicing physician for more than 50 years and a radio talk show host for 25 years, Dr. Mirkin is a graduate of Harvard University and Baylor University College of Medicine. He is board-certified in four specialties: Sports Medicine, Allergy and Immunology, Pediatrics and Pediatric Immunology. The Dr. Mirkin Show, his call-in show on fitness and health, was syndicated in more than 120 cities. Read More
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