Richard Feynman, The Great Explainer: Great Minds


We’ve talked a lot about great scientists on this show: people who solved mysteries that have been stumping lesser smarty-pants for centuries. Some of them even answered questions nobody had ever thought to ask before. But a lot of great minds have not been great explainers. Richard Feynman, the American physicist, most famous for pioneering the field of quantum electro-dynamics – while playing the bongos at a strip club – was one of the twentieth century’s great explainers. Feynman could take the most abstruse, mind-bending stuff and break it down like you wouldn’t believe: simple; elegant; and at times really moving. And he was also a great scientist. Not only did he share Nobel prize in 1965 for helping other physicists understand how light and matter interact, he’s considered one of the greatest physicists of all time. He invented Feynman diagrams, unsurprisingly, which changed physics forever back in the 1940’s. He made significant contributions to the fields of quantum computing, nanotechnology, and particle physics. Plus, he pretty much single-handedly figured out why, or at least very astutely explained why the space shuttle Challenger blew up in 1986. He was also a total character who liked the ladies, math, and playing bongos; and he didn’t really care what people thought of him. But perhaps most importantly, Richard Feynman believed that understanding the world was important to being a person, not just a scientist, which made him not only one of history’s greatest scientists, but also one of the greatest science teachers. Let’s say, hypothetically, that all scientific information on the planet was destroyed, except for what could be contained in just one sentence, and a bunch of fifth-graders were given the job of writing that sentence down. I think this would probably be the best that they could write: “All things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.” That’s how Richard Feynman described the universe. And I sometimes don’t even know why we do these videos when Feynman did it all already. But unlike some other great minds, Feynman’s genius wasn’t immediately obvious. He was smart and liked science from a very young age, but when he was a kid he wasn’t flagged as an over-the-top genius or anything. He was also an extrovert, and a kind of sassy one. But something that set little Ritty Feynman apart from all the other smart kids is that he was curious about everything. He liked thinking about stuff – math in particular. In fact, math became his hobby, and he became great at it. In 1935 he went to college at MIT, but his course of study wasn’t exactly what he wanted. He wanted to know about the physics of subatomic particles – light and other things – that, at the time, physicists were just beginning to realize didn’t follow the rules of physics. This was the very-new field of quantum mechanics. In the absence of classes about these things – they didn’t have those yet – he got all the books that he could find and started reading. By the age of 23, he had a grasp on theoretical physics, which uses math to explain and predict natural phenomena. His mad math chops got him into Princeton’s PhD program, which was a big deal because he was Jewish and in the 1930’s a lot of colleges had a limit on how many Jews they admitted. His talents were so apparent that, even before he graduated, he was offered a job to work on the Manhattan Project – the government program to develop the first atomic bomb. His job was to help calculate the magnitude of a nuclear explosion. Suddenly, Feynman found himself working alongside the pioneers of quantum mechanics like Einstein and Wolfgang Pauli. But even as a junior physicist, Feynman didn’t care who he crossed. If he didn’t agree with, say, Niels Bohr, he’d tell him. He flatly refused to wear safety goggles to the first test explosion of the atomic bomb. If he got bored, he’d go around Los Alamos – the super-secure lab in New Mexico, where the Manhattan Project was headquartered – causing trouble, picking locks on drawers, sneaking into the lab after-hours, pranking other physicists by leaving notes that made them think that their research had been stolen by spies. You know – funny stuff that only got him arrested occasionally. So he’s kind of annoying, but what made him annoying also made him a great scientist. He was tenacious and endlessly curious and didn’t much care if he was wrong. He just wanted to find the solution to a problem. If more people were like that, the world maybe would be pretty different, and probably better. After World War II, Feynman’s obsession with getting to the bottom of things got him into the thick of a math problem so tough it made other physicists want to make an atomic bomb just so they could blow their faces off. The problem was the theory of quantum electrodynamics, or QED – a theory that had been established but not completely resolved – that tried to explain how light interacts with matter at the very smallest possible level. But it was way more than that. By illuminating how particles behave at this level, QED had the potential to explain almost everything in the natural world: every color: weight; temperature; texture; sound. The difficulty scientists were having was simply in understanding light. You and I think of light in terms of visible light, but, really, all light is a form of electromagnetic radiation – the force that causes like charges to repel each other and opposite charges to attract. But light works differently under different circumstances. Visible light, for example, can be partly reflected by a window or more fully reflected in a mirror. Different colors of light can be separated when refracted through a prism. Lenses can focus beams of light. In each of these phenomena, light is interacting with matter differently on a subatomic level. By the time Feynman started working on QED, physicists had realized that these phenomena could be explained by electrons exchanging photons – temporary virtual packets that conveyed the electromagnetic force that we know as “light” with each other and with other fundamental particles. The thing about virtual particles like photons is that they just briefly pop into existence. That is, they acquire mass from energy, then do their job, and then disappear again. So when physicists got stuck – and what Feynman wanted to figure out – was how to predict how photons and electrons would behave under different circumstances. It all had to do with probabilities – the likelihood that a group of these particles would act a certain way in a certain situation. Feynman likened it to predicting a game of checkers. It’s not so hard to keep track of probability in checkers when you’re playing on a normal board. But say the checkers board was a hundred times bigger or a thousand or a million times bigger! Then the probabilities become much harder to sort out because there are so many checkers – or electrons or other subatomic particles. So when physicists tried to calculate how any given particle in an interaction would behave, the answer was basically infinity. The electron could scatter in infinite directions in infinite states of energy with a mass that was utterly unknowable. And, you know, these physicist weren’t born yesterday; they knew that couldn’t be right. So Feynman and a couple of his coleagues dug into the math, untangling the super-difficult algebra that came with tying in more and more bigger checkerboards as it were. Which is where Feynman’s Diagrams came in. Feynman initially started using diagrams as shorthand in his notes. But soon he figured out that they could be really useful in sorting out the math of QED. Because the particles he was pondering were doing all sorts of things: travelling through space; swapping other particles; appearing and disappearing; and sometimes coliding – which would turn them into totally different particles – and because he was dealing with probabilities, he could never really know for sure what was happening when or in what order. So in 1948 he marched into a meeting of physicists in Pennsylvania and drew a simple diagram on the blackboard. It showed two electrons moving through space, with one electron emitting a photon that’s absorbed by the other, and then both moving off in different directions. So he plotted this interaction against time, so the same diagram showed that the photon could be absorbed earlier, allowing for the uncertainty of time at the quantum level. Then he annotated the diagram with all the parts of the mathematical formula that reflected this interaction; and suddenly, it became clear: he had just written out the hardest math of the century – in a picture. The diagrams allowed for flexibility in terms of what was happening and when. You could extrapolate, from one basic interaction, a whole multitude of possible other interactions. With each event branching off into other possible events, the world of quantum electrodynamics could just unfold right in front of you like an episode of Scooby-Doo. For these diagrams and the incredibly complex – and, in the end, accurate – formulations that they helped represent, Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965. And because of his willingness to tackle and help sort out the toughest algebra problem in history, other physicists were able to go on and gradually untangle the giant, unholy math-knot that was QED. Feynman gave physicists a way to depict a world that nobody had been able to describe before let alone observe, which is arguably one of the greatest contributions to science any single person has ever made. From there, Feynman kept doing math that nobody else understood on topics like quantum gravity, quantum computers, and nanotechnology. And he kept getting a kick out of it even though every problem he put his mind to was fantastically-tough. He once said in a lecture, “I’m going to have fun telling you about this absurdity, because I find it delightful.” Aside from being a great scientist and a great teacher, Richard Feynman was just a kooky and curious guy: he reportedly did a lot of math in strip clubs; he was an awesome bongo player and a painter; and he spent years negotiating with the Soviet government trying to get into Tuva, a remote country in Asia where he wanted to learn the native style of throat singing. Sadly, a letter clearing him for travel to Tuva arrived the day after he died. Feynman was also on the committee appointed to investigate the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. At a televised hearing, Feynman asked for a glass of ice water and put one of the seals from the shuttle’s rocket booster – called an “O-ring” – in the water. Then he interrupted the hearing to demonstrate that it became less-resilient when it got cold, which proved to be the cause of the disaster. So I wish Richard Feynman was still around because he was awesome and I want to meet him and be his best friend. But, after a long battle with two different types of cancer, he died in 1988. His last words were, “I’d hate to die twice; it is so boring.” Hail Richard Feynman, King of Physics and my heart. Thank you for watching this episode of SciShow. If you have any questions or comments, you can find us on Facebook or Twitter or, of course, down in the comments below. And if you want to keep getting smarter with us here at SciShow, you can go to youtube.com/scishow and subscribe.

Comments 100

  • Lmao Feyman represents what you can do off pure determination and a hint of insanity. Feyman admitted it himself, i'm not the smartest, but what I lack in intelligence I make up for in creativity.

  • Sounds like he was a fine man….

  • Richard Feynman was less famous than many others such as Einstein or Bohr, but he did have a way of explaining physics. And he said right away that it was "screwy." A real character…

  • Pause 3:33 Kinda looks like Report of the week!

  • R F, Simply great personality

  • Those bongos man. Outstanding.

  • I watched a biography on Feynman years ago and it really struck a chord with me. The way he was devastated after his research ended up being used on a civilian population (twice) & his subsequent cathartic journey through his soul which led him to the throat singing monks of Touvre, and bongo playing; simple things. Peaceful things. I would have also liked to have gotten to know him. R.I.P.

  • Hey aren’t photons massless, because you said they took mass from energy

  • His last words, I'd hate to die twice. I think he meant more than a boring literal quip. It struck me as him saying he hopes he can always be remembered.

  • Super great 👍 video thanks you very much

  • A mathematician?
    An extrovert?
    Are those two things even possible together?

  • This is not a show (as the name suggests) but one talking head. Besides, the phrases that come out of it are not always the best possible.

  • I feel for him exactly the way you do

  • And the world is much better ever since…. just kidding,not really. We might be making technological progress , but we lagging behind on the human progress, sad but true, and such is the price of progress,whatever that might mean

  • Is this suggesting that lightning is electrons passing photons between one another 'randomly' because they are near each other and not the electrons themselves illuminating from heat and movement?

    Is the sun just projecting electrons and light is being created between them? That doesn't sound like it would produce the results that we get in the slit expirements.

  • Thanks, Hank.

  • Einstein didn’t work on the Manhattan project. He warned Roosevelt that the Germans might make an atom bomb and that they should start building one too.

  • Glorification

  • Feynman, Tesla and Velikovsky in my mind were the people that influenced the electric universe teaching. Plug E.U. into problems with gravity and a lot of solutions appear.

  • Richard Feynman was like the coolest person ever!!!

  • Just finished Feynman's book, You Must be Joking. He was an irritating pain to many always seeking special attention and privilege and acommodations while playing with peoples minds. An eccentric genius yes of course.

  • I see you've read "Surely your joking Mr.Feynman"

  • Well, the truth is Richard Feynman didn't figure out why the space shuttle exploded. The engineers already knew that they had temperature problems with the SRB field joint o-rings. They begged NASA management not to launch. Richard Feynman just explained it well to the public.

  • to me murray gellman seems to be doing more work than feynman . Feynman was a great teacher, but not necessary the greatest physicist. Though he still made a huge contribution to the physics society. great man.

  • I’m no perv but hanging out in the strip bar is gives me very relaxing feeling and it is scientifically proven to refresher and clears man’s mind.

  • Sounds like something I would do xD

  • Carl Sagan too was a brilliant explainer in the 20 th century

  • Just subscribed

  • QED – Quite easily Done.

  • He thought himself throat singing lol…

  • aaand he won putnam

  • What an awesome guy…

  • He was sassy till the end XD

  • Einstein was a pioneer of quantum mechanics? He hated the idea of it and tried to debunk it serveral times

  • Thank you for making this.

    I was fortunate enough to have taken two undergraduate-level physics courses (acoustics and thermodynamics; relativity and quantum mechanics) personally taught by Feynman, when my employer brought him in to teach continuing education classes. He was an amazing character, and I had the privilege of having a number of conversations, getting my butt kicked in a philosophical argument about the nature of quarks (he called them "partons"), and striking up a minor friendship with him.

    He was the best teacher I ever had and his influence in shaping my thought processes persists to this day.

    One of the most surreal and bizarre moments of my life was sitting in a class where he was teaching the rules for constructing what he called "silly pictures".

    We call them "Feynman diagrams".

    On another occasion I heard him utter "Anyone who claims to understand any of this hasn't given it enough thought." which was his paraphrase of Bohr's famous comment.

    I miss him.

  • La mécanique quantique est un monstre obstinément contre-intuitif mais le grand Feynman a voulu le dompter en le rendant intuitive. Il a presque totalement réussi.

  • And read his book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", very entertaining. I've also got a CD of him playing the bongos.

  • Hank is a great explainer too!

  • So when immortality is invented, it should be reserved to people like him.

  • One of my favorite SciShow episodes about one of my favorite people. Thanks Hank.

  • The mentor of one of my favorite mentors at Hollins College 🙂 Love love love Feynman! <3

  • The coolest cat in this universe.
    RIP.

  • I recently read a letter he wrote to his first wife and childhood sweetheart a year after she died of TB. It's one of the most moving and heartbreaking things I have ever read. He was a pretty special man with the mind of a scientist and the soul of an artist. A rare combination.

  • 4:16 if more people were like that, imagine the bigger doomsday devices we could build!

  • I love this video, everytime I'm down with depression I watch it and it cheers me up.

  • so basically old timey vsauce?

  • those last few lines…. so true <3
    #HailFeynman

  • Wonderful I miss him

  • It seems Feynman gets too much credit for the shuttle disaster explanation. It seems he got the idea from those that worked on the shuttle, and this makes sense. It would be almost impossible for Feynman to figure out what happened had he not spoken to people that worked on the shuttle and were aware of the problem; they provided him an explanation which he could then convey. These projects are so large and complex, it is ridiculous to think one person can figure it out. Imagine the number of engineers, technicians, machinists, contractors, etc. that were involved. You have to be naive to think Feynman was the man that uncovered the problem.

  • Best last words ever

  • Every time Feynman pops up drumming his Bongo just made me rofl 😂😂 huge thx for this fantastic praise video to the Giant Feynmann

  • I am curious
    Maths is my hobby
    Only hobby

  • I'd hate to think that Feynman is looking down from heaven and seeing the science denial taking place today. You nailed it when you said feynman believed that understanding the world is important to being a good person. We have a dotard president who is proud to be as dumb as a sack of rocks and encourages stupidity within his base.

  • 🤓Nerds unite 😜 ! I watched the NASA review board for the space shuttle Challenger on tv. Feynman was brilliant. He was ill at the time and had turned down the governments request originally to take part in the review. But later went on to be a part of the review board. ( the BEST part )

  • 3:30
    Lol
    Einstein was pioneer of Quantum mechanics
    He completely rejected it!

  • Bongos and throat-singing. Did anyone else remember Sheldon from Big Bang Theory?!😲

  • I reelly like your work mr. Green, of trying to share knowledge with the World. My gratitude from Brazil

  • Hail!

  • no such thing as great explainx or lovx or not, explain, can explain any by any, say any no matter what and any be perfect

  • Wikipedia says that he liked sleeping with his friends wives like that was just a thing to do.
    Like they were all just like.
    "Aww Richard you nut! You slept with my wife again didn't you! Well that's ole Ricky for you"

  • What i like him about him he was extroverted funny not like other scientists while still managing to be great one it gives me hope that may be i can be great scientists and it is great proof that you just have to be yourself you don’t have to copy others

  • For more on Tuva, watch this movie: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Genghis_Blues

  • I find Feynman so interesting when I hear his lectures.

  • what a motherfucking badass.

  • You talk too fast😣

  • Whats bizarre is Richard never grasped Music which he sortta regretted:

  • hey men its a bit late but what if the number of squares is the same and you increase the size, the game will still have a finite number of possibilities

  • Because fynemen is gone now and we need to keep his work interesting for new generations and alive

  • Need your help in electricity physics

  • Papa franku of physics

  • You forgot to mention that he also played a musical instrument called frigideira. It is actually a 20 cm in diameter frying pan with a metal stick to hit it. He played this instrument in his samba band in Brazil. This story was mentioned in "Surely you are joking, mr Feynman".

  • I think Feynman and Dennis McKenna have something in common. They have a vocal quality that just makes whatever they are saying, extremely interesting along with focusing your attention. Both could read phone books and I would have a smile on my face while I'm listening.

  • did he say his last words before or after they pumped him with a lethal dose of morphine?

  • I think he was pretty sexist too. At least at one point in his life.

  • Hey! Richard O. Feynman has always been my FAVORITE Physicist…. Such a wacky but infinitely brilliant mind (his greatest asset and gift). For a read that anyone who loves physics will find impossible to put down, U highly recommend his, "Adventures of a Curious Character", (or something very close to that), by Richard P. Feynman. This man remains one our time's most gifted, genius- contributors to science and knowledge, whose insights, brilliance and legacy willdoubt grow with time, understanding, implementation of his ideas, and appreciation as scientists and physicists of the future continue to expand upon some of the critical foundations Feynman's work has laid. Curious Character or not, our world is a much richer place for his having been here, and it would have been a true honour to have actually met the man before his demise. The intellectual curiosity his parents instilled in him from a very early age formed and developed into a deeply-instilled desire to simply understand how EVERYTHING works, right on down to the particles level. And God bless him for being such a generous teacher… one who was willing to share and impart his wisdom to eager students, while I'm sure he would have preferred to be better-occupied engaged in more of his own research studies, with his valuable time. Funny, brilliant, generous, yes – he will be missed by many more than my humble self. All my respect, always, (wherever you are), Richard.

  • Thank you for introducing us to this Magnificent Man🏆

  • Wait so the photon hits the other particle even before it leaves the first one……?

  • Electron s of positive and negative absorbed by Superconductive regions as bubbling chargers absorbing sound waves of light Ning reducing its decibel under any Superconductive Cooling thanks to Bardeen.During lightning the mass of Superconductive electrons will be the function of reduced sound waves forming an informative graviton dynamics in which light rays converted as high charging super conductivity.
    Sankaravelayudhan Nandakumar for MIT students.

  • The bongos really make this video.

  • I could not agree with your sentiments, regarding your admiration for Feynman, more. Meeting him would have been a high point.

  • He was also an amateur safe cracker.

  • Hey man.
    Somebody has to play the bongos at a strip club.

  • Man, Richard Feynman would make a great Epic Rap Battes Of History rapper!

  • Math? A hobby?

  • I like you great Feynman

  • Principle number 1 is you must not fool your self because you are the easiest person to fool.
    -Richard Feynman

  • great minds can not sometimes see the creator of all these great things in the universe.He died as an athiest .

  • Great video…my eye welled up a bit when talking about him passing away

  • Loved it.

  • I feel like Dr House's character was inspired from this guy.

  • He was the Tony Stark of his century. Solved the hardest math problems in a strip club while he played bongos
    and got killed after captain cancer snaps twice. That's badass.

  • Fenyman shown incorrect on dual slits etc. by following paper.
    Latest discovery on time dilation, fixed light speed and
    understand Algebra, then download this open access, no login,
    no ads, 2018 Cern archive journal paper.
    https://www.zenodo.org/record/1447218

  • Greetings of the Day, I would like to know more about Feynman, can you please suggest me where I can get it and if you let me know the source of your talk about him I will be very grateful to you. Thank you for help… Have good time

  • No more legends are born now a days…. Just wanna b's.

  • That dude was incredible

  • “Q.E.D., a theory that had been established but not completely resolved” i really love you guys

  • He didn't wear safety goggles at the 1st atom bomb test because he realised – unlike every other person there – that he could watch it clearly through the windscreen of his car, as the glass would stop the harmful UV rays.

  • I read "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman". His safe cracking anecdotes are legendary.

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