Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a famous American physicist. Now, he was not your typical physicist. Not to generalize too much, but people have pretty standard ideas about what a physicist will look like, behave like, dress like, and so forth—for example, the scientists you find in the Far Side might typify your average person’s idea of a physicist. Nerdy, huge headed, bald, with glasses, a lab coat, etc. But Feynman had a little rock ’n roll in him. He dressed very casually—Feynman was a T-shirt kind of guy, a T-shirt and sneakers physicist. He had long, wavy hair, he was handsome; he looked mischievous all the time, as if he’d left a whoopee cushion on your chair.
Now, why spend so much time on this boyish aspect of Feynman; why try to separate him from the physicist herd on the basis of his looks, right off? That’s a good question, but in this instance you have someone whose outward appearance really conformed to his inward personality, and many people believe that it was this T-shirt and tennis shoes aspect of Feynman that helped him to make his exciting and important discoveries. That is, he didn’t think gravely and solemnly as befitting an eminent scientist; he thought about physics with the reckless, curious, adventurous, risk-taking excitement of a child; you know how a child his, excitedly trooping to the backyard with his jar and butterfly net. Not only did this youthful tendency help him in his discoveries, it helped him to become a great and magnetic teacher as well. Students swarmed to hear Feynman lecture, and suddenly a subject that seemed intimidating and cold and out of bounds became this wild adventure.
Feynman, then, quite apart from his discoveries, helped to make physics interesting and approachable for the average person. He published many books in his lifetime, avoiding highly complicated scientific jargon and developing a style that made the complicated subject of physics available to anyone who cared to take a look. Many of his live lectures were recorded and are available on CD, so that you can hear him lecture with all of the pauses, jokes, asides, inspirations, digressions, etc., that made him such a popular professor to begin with.
For those who are interested in the man behind the lectures, Feynman wrote two very popular autobiographical books as well. These help to give insight into how and why and who Feynman was. Years after his death, they still sell very well, and can be found at any local bookstore or online.
Feynman was something of a prodigy from a very early age. Interestingly, however, his I.Q. was only scored at 123—one point below Ted Bundy’s. Not just interestingly, some would say, but inspiringly—Feynman proved that you can be a genius without having a genius’s I.Q. (Feynman disparaged such tests, anyhow, claiming that they couldn’t tell anybody anything fundamental about a person’s intelligence, abilities, creativity, etc.) Anyhow, from very early on Feynman took a keen interest in mathematics and science, and from very early on his unconventional approach to these subjects was made manifest in the classroom. One day, for example, he (along with the rest of his class) was informed that the lecture for that day would be on feline anatomy. Feynman asked the teacher, “Do you have a map of the cat?”
“Do you have a map of the cat?” might very well sum Feynman up in one line. He meant, of course, do you have an illustration of feline anatomy, but he essentially saw the world as a boy does—as a gigantic treasure map with plenty of unexplored territory.
Feynman would go on to gain perfect scores on his entrance exams to Princeton, where he began his lifelong career of discovering and explicating more and more of the “map of the cat.” He eventually received the Noble Prize for his efforts, and is a fine example of the particularly American style of getting a job done.