Richard Phillips Feynman was a theoretical physicist awarded with the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, together with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonagafor, for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics –QED–, the quantum-mechanical theory of electromagnetism.
Feynman is arguably one of the most creative scientists of the 20th century. During his lifetime, he became one of the best-known scientists in the world, notably for his participation in iconic initiatives like the Manhattan Project, for his pioneering work in the fields of quantum computing and nanotechnology (“There is plenty of Room at the bottom“), and for being an active popularizer of physics with acclaimed textbooks like “The Feynman Lectures on Physics” or his autobiographic “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman“.
One of his most renowned and pictorial contributions to physics is a graphical representation scheme used to simplify mathematical calculations in quantum field theory: Feynman diagrams. Feynman first introduced his diagrams in a private, invitation-only meeting at the Pocono Manor Inn in rural Pennsylvania during the spring of 1948.
Every advanced student of quantum field theory is familiar with the two terrific problems which marred physicists’ efforts to make QED calculations since the early 1930s. First, QED was plagued with “unphysical” infinities (divergent integrals) when using perturbation theory. Second, the formalism was notoriously cumbersome, an algebraic nightmare of mathematical terms to track and evaluate.
Feynman showed how some of those troublesome infinities could be removed using a combination of calculation tricks called renormalization. By using the diagrams as a bookkeeping device to track the order of operations, Feynman solved the long-standing puzzle that had stymied the world’s best theoretical physicists for years.
Although not immediately after the Pocono presentation, the diagrams gained adherents throughout the fields of nuclear and particle physics and, since then, Feynman diagrams have filled blackboards around the world and papers in theoretical physics journals, not always to the delight of editors (see figure)
So far, this is part of the well-known history of 20th century physics. What is not so widely known is that Richard Feynman was also a surprisingly gifted semi-secret artist who started drawing at the age of 44 in 1962, enjoying some success under the pseudonym Ofey(2).
It is striking how one of the most gifted men ever, capable of inventing a brand new formulation for one of the most abstruse theories ever, felt he needed to draw in order to convey the deep emotion of “understanding” the inner workings of nature:
I wanted very much to learn to draw, for a reason that I kept to myself: I wanted to convey an emotion I have about the beauty of the world (…) It’s an appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature, of how she works inside; a realization that the phenomena we see result from the complexity of the inner workings between atoms; a feeling of how dramatic and wonderful it is. It’s a feeling of awe — of scientific awe — which I felt could be communicated through a drawing to someone who had also had this emotion. (Feynman, “But Is It Art?”; wikiquote)
(1) Image from “Notes from Sidney Coleman’s Physics 253a”, the typeset edition of Brian Hill’s handwritten notes taken during Coleman’s Legendary Harvard Lectures on Quantum Field Theory (Physics 253). The Harvard Physics Department has made films of the lectures from the 1975-1976.
(2) The Art of Richard P. Feynman: Images by a Curious Character collects a quarter century of Feynman’s drawings, curated by his daughter Michelle
Featured Image: Female posing (left) and Dancer at Gianonni’s Bar (right); Richard Feynman’s Works of Art