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Born: 11 May 1918 in New York, USA
Died: 15 Feb 1988 in Los Angeles, California, USA
Richard Feynman studied at MIT and received his doctorate from Princeton in 1942. His doctoral work developed a new approach to quantum mechanics using the principle of least action. He replaced the wave model of electromagnetics of Maxwell with a model based on particle interactions mapped into space - time.

Feynman worked on the atomic bomb project at Princeton University (1941-42) and then at Los Alamos (1943-45). After World War II he was appointed to the chair of theoretical physics at Cornell University, then, in 1950, to the chair of theoretical physics at Caltech. He remained at Caltech for the rest of his career.

Feynman's main contribution was to quantum mechanics, following on from the work of his doctoral thesis. He introduced diagrams (now called Feynman diagrams) that are graphic analogues of the mathematical expressions needed to describe the behaviour of systems of interacting particles. For this work he was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965, jointly with Schwinger and Tomonoga.

Other work on particle spin and the theory of 'partons' which led to the current theory of quarks were fundamental in pushing forward an understanding of particle physics.

Feynman's books include many outstanding ones which evolved out of lecture courses. For example Quantum Electrodynamics (1961) and The Theory of Fundamental Processes (1961), The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1963-65) (3 volumes), The Character of Physical Law (1965) and QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (1985).

In Gleick described Feynman's approach to science:

So many of his witnesses observed the utter freedom of his flights of thought, yet when Feynman talked about his own methods not freedom but constraint ... For Feynman the essence of scientific imagination was a powerful and almost painful rule. What scientists create must match reality. It must match what is already known. scientific imagination, he said, is imagination in a straitjacket ... The rules of harmonic progression made for Mozart a cage as unyielding as the sonnet did for Shakespeare. As unyielding and as liberating - for later critics found the creator's genius in the counterpoint of structure and freedom, rigour and inventiveness.

Article by J J O'Connor and E F Robertson