Thursday, 6 March 2008

Richard Feynman: part 1

This is a post for the physicists among you, and is the first in what I am expecting will end up being a series of four. Please read all four, especially the last, if you want to get a complete picture of what I want to say about Feynman. I hope to post the four instalments at the rate of one a week.

But first, for those who are not physicists, an introduction to Richard Feynman. He was born in New York in 1918, graduated with a BSc from Massachusetts Institute of Technology in 1939 and completed his PhD at Princeton in 1942. He worked during the war years at Los Alamos Scientific Laboratory - ie as part of the huge team of scientists and engineers assembled in the middle of nowhere to develop the atomic bomb. Most of the physicists of any note were involved in this project one way or another. Feynman was subsequently professor of theoretical physics at Cornell University and then, most famously, at California Institute of Technology (Caltech). There, beginning in 1962, he delivered a course of introductory lectures to undergraduates as part of a renewal of the physics teaching at Caltech. These lectures, published from tape recordings in three volumes as the Feynman Lectures on Physics, form the heart of his reputation as an able communicator of his science. One of his last scientific contributions was as a member of the enquiry into the Challenger shuttle disaster. Oh, and he won a Nobel prize along the way. This was in 1965, when he shared the prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics (ie the theory of how light interacts with matter, and in particular with electrons) for which he developed a novel and powerful method of calculation. [Aside for the physicists: interestingly, the idea of using probability amplitude vectors on which this method of calculation is based now appears in the teaching materials of the Advancing Physics A-level physics course here in the UK.] Feynman died in 1988.

It is probably truer to say of Feynman that he was a great communicator of physics than to say that he was a populariser of physics. A book such as QED The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, which is a collection of four lectures on quantum electrodynamics delivered/written for a non-specialist audience, is still available in paperback some 20 years after first publication. But it has never attracted the glamourous public attention given to that far, far inferior book by Stephen Hawkings, A brief history of time. I think there are two reasons for this, and they are both reasons that mean I find Feynman attractive as a writer about physics:

1. There is no compromising of the physics content, either in terms of the range of the content or in terms of the depth of treatment. There is an attempt to make it comprehensible without all the busy equations, and so make it accessible, but you can read the book and feel that you get properly to grips with the physics. This is not possible with most "popular physics" writing, and certainly not true of Hawkings, where the physics content is emasculated when compared to Feynman's writing.

2. Feynman talks/writes about the physics - without any overlay of philosophy or ideology. He lets the physics speak for itself, and lets it show its own intrinsic metaphysics/ epistemology [its "own" expression of the reality of things/its "own" expression of how we come to know things when we do physics].

To give you a flavour, here are a couple of quotations found pretty much at random from a collection of essays based on the Lectures on Physics. They appear in a book called Six Easy Pieces:

"In this chapter, we begin our more detailed study of the different aspects of physics , having finished our description of things in general." [my emphasis - note the readiness with which our ability to describe things themselves is expressed here.]

At the beginning of the next chapter:

"In this chapter we shall discuss one of the most far-reaching generalizations of the human mind. While we are admiring the human mind, we should take some time off to stand in awe of a nature that could follow with such completeness and generality such an elegantly simple principle as the law of gravitation." [Note here the very easy acceptance of a correlation between our ability to know and the reality that is known.]
The book by Feynman that I want to look at in particular is one called The Character of Physical Law, so if you want to read ahead, that is the book to start on!


Anonymous said...


A friend of mine gave me "QED - The Strange Theory of Light and Matter" because I'd become upset with him because he couldn't explain to me why glass isn't opaque (while he's pursuing a research master in optics). I have yet to find a formula in it :)

To me, it was a rather weird experience because my method of learning physics always was examine physical systems -> derive formulae -> throw a bucketload of mathematics over said formulae to see what they're doing, which is rather different than "let the clock tick and draw arrows" :)

But I'm sure that as soon as I actually understand it (which might be only after I've taken the QED course during my Master's), I'll really love it!

Rita said...

"Probability amplitude vectors in the A'level".... do you know how to teach it? I can't!

Still, thanks for the post. Certainly an interesting man, quite an inspirational communicator. I look forward to the rest of your series.

Joe said...


I haven't ever taught that syllabus! Perhaps I should give it a go ...