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Why is Richard Feyn­man such an im­por­tant fig­ure?

He was a first-rate sci­en­tist and more im­por­tantly a first-rate teacher and com­mu­ni­ca­tor. He reached out to the world, ex­plain­ing physics in an eas­ily un­der­stood way and showed that sci­en­tists aren’t ro­bots in lab coats but hu­man be­ings who like a good time (and play­ing the bongo drums).

How did Feyn­man con­trib­ute to the Chal­lenger dis­as­ter in­ves­ti­ga­tion?

Feyn­man was in­de­pen­dent of NASA and known for his sharp brain and out­spo­ken hon­esty. Fol­low­ing some hints from a col­league, Feyn­man found the im­me­di­ate cause of the ac­ci­dent and drew at­ten­tion to the mis­man­age­ment and bad prac­tices that had caused it. This was not what the au­thor­i­ties wanted to hear, and they tried to keep him quiet, but he in­sisted on pub­lish­ing his find­ings. NASA was never the same again, but in a good way.

How would you de­scribe Richard Feyn­man, the per­son?

We never met Feyn­man, but we met many of his friends and col­leagues, who re­vealed to us an im­age of a man who was so­cia­ble, fun to be with and hon­est. He got more plea­sure out of things he was not ex­pected to be good at (like paint­ing or crack­ing codes) than his day job. On more than one oc­ca­sion he solved a ma­jor physics prob­lem, stuck the pa­per­work in a drawer and for­got about it un­til some­one else solved the same puz­zle and pub­lished it. In a sense, he was the last great am­a­teur sci­en­tist.

JOHN GRIB­BIN is au­thor of such books as 13.8 and The Uni­verse: A Bi­og­ra­phy

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