When Oppenheimer Helped Feynman Meet Dirac

May 1, 2021 0 comments
feynman oppengheimer dirac meeting physics

Paul Dirac and Richard Feynman were two different physicists in terms of approach. For Dirac, physics was a search of pretty mathematics. Feynman, however, always began his work from observations he made in the real world.

The two physicists were also poles apart when it came to informal speaking. While Dirac was a man of extremely few words and legendarily so; Feynman on the other hand was candidly chatty.

Yet, Dirac was Feynman's idol growing up. Their first meeting, however, was very brief and unproductive. Dirac asked: "Do you have an equation?" Feynman being a beginner at the time didn't and so Dirac walked away after a silence.

In 1948, thanks to Robert Oppenheimer, Feynman's former boss at the Manhattan Project, who also happened to be close friends with Dirac, Feynman got a second chance to impress his hero.

Oppenheimer successfully organized the first postwar physics conferences in the United States and brought together the most brilliant minds of his time such as Bohr, Fermi, Bethe and Dirac.

Under Oppenheimer's direction, physicists once again tackled the greatest unsolved problems of the pre-war. Some may consider it rather ironic that the same person who headed nuclear weapons program was also the one who helped revive collaborative work in physics.

During one of the conferences arranged by Oppenheimer, Feynman gave a lecture on quantum electrodynamics and introduced to the world for the very first time Feynman diagrams.

He drew strange, unfamiliar drawings on the blackboard; lines in different shapes—straight, dotted, and squiggly—in the course of the lecture as intellectuals, including Dirac, looked at him in bewilderment.

Feynman had succeeded in making a mark.

Their third meeting occurred in 1962 out of which came an iconic picture of the duo. It was taken by Polish photographer Marek Holzman during the relativity conference in Warsaw. The following conversation is said to have transpired.

feynman dirac oppenheimer physics

Feynman: Hello again. I'm Feynman.

Dirac: I'm Dirac.

Feynman (admiringly): It must be wonderful to be the discoverer of that equation (he meant Dirac equation).

Dirac: That was a long time ago. (1928)

A pause.

Dirac: What are you working on now?

Feynman: Mesons.

Dirac: Are you trying to find an equation for them?

Feynman: No; it's very hard.

Dirac: One must try.

This was their last meeting. In 1965, Feynman shared the Nobel Prize with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichirĊ Tomonaga for work done in quantum electrodynamics, a field of physics pioneered by Paul Dirac in the 1930s.

Feynman would later recall that those conferences organized by Oppenheimer were the best he had ever attended. That they were his first and the most important outings with the big men of physics.


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