Behind the Name: Richard Feynman – Physicist. Teacher. Romantic

Nobel prize-winning quantum physicist (and nuclear bomb maker and bongo player) Richard Feynman dedicated his life to understanding the abstruse and fearfully complicated – and making it intelligible, even enjoyable. A tribute to one of the greatest teachers and thinkers of the 20th century.

New York-born theoretical physicist Richard Feynman (1918-1988) is still hailed for his work in quantum electrodynamics, which describes how light interacts with matter and how subatomic particles interact with each other. Feynman also studied the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, figured out a path integral formulation of quantum mechanics — used widely in quantum computing, invented a wacky contraption called a Feynman sprinkler, styled his own brand of slash notations for use in something called ‘Dirac fields’... and the list goes on.

If this seems daunting or incomprehensible fear not, for Feynman himself is with you. “I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about,” the Nobel Prize winner told the BBC in a 1983 interview. Feynman delighted in the not knowing of things — the mysteries of our universe — and the uncovering of them. His biographer James Gleick recounted how Feynman would begin each new notebook by cheerfully inscribing on the first page, ‘Notebook of Things I Don’t Know About’. Feynman, more so than most great thinkers, accepted uncertainty and doubt as the necessary engines for learning. Accordingly, his mind was at ease in a state of restless wonderment and curiosity. Fittingly, a 1999 compendium of his work was titled The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

This quality — the emotions and romance of science, as it were — led Feynman to find a certain poetry within his discipline and beyond it. “It is surprising that people do not believe that there is imagination in science,” he wrote. “It is a very interesting kind of imagination, unlike that of the artist. The great difficulty is in trying to imagine something that you have never seen, that is consistent in every detail with what has already been seen, and that is different from what has been thought of; furthermore, it must be definite and not a vague proposition.

Feynman’s joy of learning and discovery also made him a brilliant teacher. Gifted with a knack for reducing the extremely complicated to the bearably simple, he insisted: “If you can’t explain an idea to an eight-year-old, you don’t understand it.” For Feynman, most things could be dissected into parts, contemplated, and explained to another person. “It is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough, we see the entire universe,” he wrote. “There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflection in the glass; and our imagination adds atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition, we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of stars.”

So, why have we chosen to name our 21st building after Feynman? Well, at Ockham we share his belief that most complex things are simpler (and often more elegant) when broken into smaller pieces — like, say, an inner-city site, portioned into a succession of architectural components. But more than that, there’s also an aesthetic, a beauty, in the puzzling-out itself.

You may have noticed we name our developments after critical thinkers and values we hold dear. We’re honouring Feynman here on Great North Road, just up from The Turing — so-called for Alan Turing — and a skip away from The Isaac — named after Sir Isaac Newton — on Surrey Crescent. On the road between these great minds, it seemed just right.

Further Feynman