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Richard P Feynman 1918-1986

I can't honestly say that Feynman deserves a place in the history of computing. But he has been dead less than a decade and may yet earn such a place: He suggested in 1982 that quantum computers might have fundamentally more powerful computational abilities than conventional ones (basing his conjecture on the extreme difficulty encountered in computing the result of quantum mechanical processes on conventional computers, in marked contrast to the ease with which Nature computes the same results), a suggestion which has feen followed up by fits and starts, and has recently led to the conclusion that either quantum mechanics is wrong in some respect, or else a quantum mechanical computer can make factoring integers "easy", destroying the entire existing edifice of publicKey cryptography, the current proposed basis for the electronic community of the future.

Mostly, Dick Feynman is just a wonderful, irreplacable character, and I can't resist including here a pointer to a biography of him.

Dick Feynman was an irrepressably "curious character" who devoted his life to playing with the universe, teasing out its secrets in his own way on his own initiative, fascinated by everything from quarks to ants to galaxies, absolutely unafraid of any problem or person.

As a child, he would contract to fix other people's radios despite having initially no understanding whatever of electronics: He took them apart, determined experimentally that replacing the glass tubes that didn't glow would often restore correct operation, and shortly had a virtual electronics laboratory in his bedroom.

From birth to death, he was never satisfied with accepting conventional wisdom on any subject: He was never happy until he had taken a subject apart and put it back together himself in his own way.

He invented his own algebraic notation which he only very reluctantly abandoned, finally concluding that communicating with others sometimes justifies settling for a second-best notation.

Self-taught in mathematics as in everything else, in his senior college year he won the nation's most difficult and prestigious mathematics competition -- the Putnam -- by a score so far ahead of the next four finishers as to astound the scorers. In many years, more than half the entrants fail to complete a single problem in the allotted time: Feynman left early.

During the Manhattan project Feynman, unstoppably energetic and completely unintimidated by the collected finest minds in physics, ran the computing department and several other divisions, served as a one-man "solutions please" phone service for all difficulties mathematical, commuted to tend a dying wife, and still managed to find enough time for practical jokes and recreation that his memoirs leave one with the modest impression that he was there merely as a spectator.

Feynman is best known for -- characteristically -- taking quantum mechanics apart and putting it back together his own way, inventing his own notation in the process. This time he got the world to switch to his notation rather than vice versa: Feynman diagrams are now the indespensable language of quantum mechanical computations, to the point that most high energy physicists would be lost without them.

I'm inclined to believe that Richard Feynman should be counted the eighth and final fatality of the Challenger shuttle explosion: Like many Manhattan Project veterans, he eventually contracted a normally rare cancer, which had been in remission for nearly decade when he was called to Washington to participate in the media circus. Stress has a well-known depressing effect on the immune system: He died almost immediately after returning.

Dick was a gifted and enthusiastic storyteller: He published two volumes of anecdotes, Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!" (WW Norton and Company 1985, ISBN 0-393-01921-7) and What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988, ISBN 0-553-34784-5). His friends were incensed that he left himself looking a buffoon; He was incensed when they were taken as autobiography: "Not An Autobiography. Not So. Simply A Set Of Anecdotes."

More true-to-life image of Feynman may be gleaned from Freeman Dyson's Disturbing the Universe (Harper Colophon Books 1979, ISBN 0-06-090771-1): Dyson gets credit for explaining Feynman diagrams to the rest of the world. (Dyson is himself a fascinating person person, and like Feynman sufficiently modest that one gets no real sense of his accomplishments from his own writing.)

The best biography of Feynman to date, and probably for some time to come, is James Gleick's Genius: The Life And Science Of Richard Feynman (Pantheon Books 1992, ISBN 0-679-40836-3).

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