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Richard Feynman’s centenary celebrations

10 May 2018 Matin Durrani
Photo of Richard Feynman lecturing at CERN in 1965

Richard Feynman – one of the most iconic physicists of the 20th century – was born exactly 100 years ago today on 11 May 1918. Like the late Stephen Hawking, he was one of the few physicists to have entered the wider public consciousness, gaining celebrity status through his pioneering lectures, his best-selling books, his much talked-about private life and, of course, his unique way of doing physics. Unlike Hawking, though, Feynman went on to win a Nobel Prize for Physics, sharing the 1965 award with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichirō Tomonaga. He also helped to build the atomic bomb.

Feynman’s enduring fame is one reason why various events are being held around the world today to celebrate the centenary of his birth. Much of the focus will be at the California Institute of Technology, where Feynman worked for almost four decades until his death in 1988. It is hosting a two-day meeting featuring a star-studded line up of guests who include Feynman’s sister Joan and his adopted daughter Michelle. Also present at the “Feynman 100” celebration and symposium will be other top scientists like Freeman Dyson, David Gross, Lisa Randall, Sara Seager, Leonard Susskind and Kip Thorne who will “survey the current frontiers of knowledge and share their vision of where science is heading”.

Over on the other side of the world, meanwhile, Feynman’s long-time friend, biographer and sidekick Ralph Leighton is hosting an event in the remote Russian region of Tuva, which lies near the border with China. Feynman had a long fascination with this region, which emerged from Tuva having issued its own postage stamps in the 1920s. Feynman spent many years with Leighton trying to visit Tuva – his attempts blocked first by Soviet red tape and later by Feynman’s involvement in the Challenger space-shuttle disaster. Feynman died of cancer before his dream was fulfilled, though the pair’s attempts to visit are documented in Leighton’s 1991 book Tuva or Bust!: Richard Feynman’s Last Journey. Leighton is today planning to host a party at the “Centre of Asia” monument in Kyzyl, before carving a Feynman diagram into a Tuvan rockface.

Elsewhere, a UK-based production company Simian Stories is launching a crowd-funding campaign to raise the production budget for a new short film about Feynman. It will be “a non-linear montage” of key moments in the  relationship between Feynman and his first wife Arline, who tragically died of tubercolosis in 1945 aged just 26. Feynman was devastated by her death and the following year wrote a love letter to her that he instructed should remain unopened until after his death. The letter expresses his continuing love and longing for her – and Simian Stories has been awarded the rights to use it in the film. There’s more information about the film online here.

Finally, BBC Radio 4 has a new episode of its “Great Lives” series, in which the British businessman Tej Lalvani who runs the UK vitamin maker Vitabiotics and stars on the Dragon’s Den show – discusses the life and times of Feynman with presenter Matthew Parris and theoretical physicist David Berman from Queen Mary University of London. 

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