Richard Feynman, the late great Nobel Prize-winning physicist, remains an icon. One of his fans is Bill Gates, the Microsoft chairman. “He was incredibly inspirational,” Gates remarked once. “He was an independent thinker and gifted teacher who pushed himself to understand new things. I have enjoyed everything I’ve read about him and by him. I admired him deeply…"
The Feynman Lectures on Physics, a set of lectures Feynman gave to undergraduates at Caltech in '62-63, is a classic. (For a description of how the lectures came about, see the definitive article by Feynman's colleague Matthew Sands in Physics Today, April 2005).
Feynman’s fame grew when he was appointed to the Rogers commission in 1986 to investigate the Challenger shuttle explosion. His dramatic demonstration on television of the loss of resiliency in O-ring at freezing temperature as a principal cause of the accident made him a celebrity. In applauding his performance, the physicist Freeman Dyson said: "The public saw with their own eyes how science is done, how a great scientist thinks with his hands, how nature gives a clear answer when a scientist asks a clear question."
Since he passed away in 1988, Feynman lore has continued to grow. Several books have been published, including Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (James Gleick, 1992), Most of the Good Stuff: Memories of Richard Feynman (American Institute of Physics, 1993), No Ordinary Genius (Christopher Sykes, 1994), The Beat of a Different Drum (Jagdish Mehra, 1994), Feynman’s Lost Lecture: The Motion of Planets Around the Sun (W.W. Norton, 1996), The Meaning of It All (Helix Books, 1998), The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (Perseus Books, 1999) Feynman's Rainbow (Leonard Mlodinow, 2003), and Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard Feynman (Edited by Michelle Feynman, Basic Books, 2005).
Reminiscences by colleagues also appear from time to time in Physics journals, such as "Capturing the Wisdom of Feynman" by Matthew Sands (Physics Today, April 2006) and "Memories of Feynman" by Theodore A. Welton (Physics Today, February 2007).
In 1964, Feynman gave a series of lectures at Cornell University, the Messenger Lectures, under the title "The Character of Physical Law." His topics ranged from symmetry, probability and uncertainty in physical laws to techniques by which physicists seek new laws. The lectures were recognized for their extraordinary quality. "I have videotapes of physics lectures Feynman gave at Cornell decades ago," said Gates. "They are the best lectures I’ve seen on any subject. He shared his enthusiasm and clarity energetically and persuasively."
And now the super-fan has paid his respect to the great physicist and teacher. Gates bought the rights to the seven videos that constitute the Messenger Lectures from BBC and has made them available to the public for free for the first time. On July 14, 2009, Microsoft Research, in collaboration with Gates, launched a Web site - Project Tuva – with the Messenger Lectures that is expected to, among other goals, "help kids get excited about physics and science.”
“I think someone who can make science interesting is magical” said Gates. “And the person who did that better than anybody was Richard Feynman. He took the mystery of science, the importance of science, the strangeness of science, and made it fun and interesting and approachable.”
One doesn’t have to be a physicist or even a student of physics to appreciate Feynman, a genius with the flair of a showman. At a time when science education is declining in our schools and colleges, partly as a result of uninspiring teachers, to be able to see a master in action is a rare treat indeed. For this, Bill Gates deserves our thanks.
(If you are up to it, here is an imaginary encounter between Richard Feynman and Bill Gates)