Local History Spotlight

Volume 6: Richard Feynman: Ithaca Physicist

Emerson said, “People only see what they are prepared to see.” This was especially true of a grief-stricken Cornell physicist, who closed his eyes to destiny until one fateful day in a Cornell University cafeteria.

spaceshipLike many Ithacans, Jewish-born Richard Feynman only visited Cornell for a short time, but his work there changed the scientific world forever. Born in New York City on May 11, 1918, Feynman discovered a love of physics early in his college career. He got his first big break in the field while pursuing a PhD in theoretical physics at Princeton University. A group of scientists invited him to Los Alamos to participate on the Manhattan Project, a governmental initiative to build the first atomic bomb in a technological race against the German Nazis. Once detonated, the bomb’s devastating effects, combined with the death of his first wife pushed Feynman into a lengthy depression. Seeking a new start, he left Los Alamos and took a job at Cornell University as a physics professor.

The transition to Cornell was not an easy one. Most residents know you can’t get a hotel room in Ithaca the week before classes start, but Feynman did not; he spent his first night in town sleeping on a couch in the physics department. While he quickly adjusted to his new role as a professor, he found himself uncomfortable with the liberal-arts environment at Cornell, and was deeply offended by the anti-Semitic views of some of his fellow professors. The Ithaca dating scene was also a struggle. In spite of these issues, Cornell became a respite for Feynman, allowing him to establish himself as an educator at a time when his grief made it impossible for him to focus on research. Dissatisfied with his outlook on life, Feynman eventually resolved to find a way to renew his love of both life and science. Sitting in the cafeteria at Cornell one day, he observed a student throwing a plate into the air. He noticed that while the plate spun in the air, the red Cornell emblem moved faster than the plate itself. This simple observation served as a catalyst for Feynman’s scientific inquisitiveness, propelling him back into the laboratory. His “Wobbly Plate” research eased his depression and later earned him a Nobel Prize for his contribution to quantum electrodynamics.

Unfortunately, the therapeutic effects of his research didn’t last long, as Feynman became increasingly disgusted by Ithaca’s small-town mindset and long, unpredictable winters. While fighting with tire chains in the midst of a frigid snowstorm, he decided it was time to pursue life in a warmer, more sophisticated city. He accepted a job at the California Institute of Technology where he went on to find a new wife and family, and a teaching career that would last the rest of his days. He passed away in 1988 after battling cancer, but left behind a legacy as a brilliant physicist and  beloved teacher who made physics accessible and understandable to everyone.

Sources

Feynman, Richard, et al. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character. New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1997. Print.

“Natural Scientists: Past and Present Science” T.R. (Joe) Sundaram. Web. 8 March 2011.

Sykes, Christoper, edit. No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman. New York:  W.W. Norton & Company, 1994. Print.

Page last modified May 3, 2012