Read Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science Online

Authors: Lawrence M. Krauss

Tags: #Science / Physics

Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science

BOOK: Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science
3.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


Sherwin B. Nuland

The Doctors’ Plague: Germs, Childbed Fever,
and the Strange Story of Ignác Semmelweis

Michio Kaku

Einstein’s Cosmos: How Albert Einstein’s Vision Transformed
Our Understanding of Space and Time

Barbara Goldsmith

Obsessive Genius: The Inner World of Marie Curie

Rebecca Goldstein

Incompleteness: The Proof and Paradox of Kurt Gödel

Madison Smartt Bell

Lavoisier in Year One: The Birth of a New Science
in an Age of Revolution

George Johnson

Miss Leavitt’s Stars: The Untold Story of the Woman
Who Discovered How to Measure the Universe

David Leavitt

The Man Who Knew Too Much: Alan Turing
and the Invention of the Computer

William T. Vollmann

Uncentering the Earth: Copernicus
The Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres

David Quammen

The Reluctant Mr. Darwin: An Intimate Portrait of Charles Darwin and the Making of His Theory of Evolution

Richard Reeves

A Force of Nature: The Frontier Genius of Ernest Rutherford

Michael Lemonick

The Georgian Star: How William and Caroline Herschel
Revolutionized Our Understanding of the Cosmos

Dan Hofstadter

The Earth Moves: Galileo and the Roman Inquisition


Hiding in the Mirror



Beyond Star Trek

The Physics of Star Trek

Fear of Physics

The Fifth Essence



Richard Feynman’s Life in Science

with corrections by Cormac McCarthy



Reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

, 1918–1988



The Paths to Greatness

Lights, Camera, Action

The Quantum Universe

A New Way of Thinking

Alice in Quantumland

Endings and Beginnings

Loss of Innocence

Paths to Greatness

From Here to Infinity

Splitting an Atom

Through a Glass Darkly

The Rest of the Universe

Matter of the Heart and the Heart of Matter

Rearranging the Universe

Hiding in the Mirror

Distractions and Delights

Twisting the Tail of the Cosmos

From Top to Bottom

Truth, Beauty, and Freedom

Character Is Destiny

Acknowledgments and Sources



I find physics is a wonderful subject. We know so very much and then subsume it into so very few equations that we can say we know very little.

, 1947

t is often hard to disentangle reality from imagination when it comes to childhood memories, but I have a distinct recollection of the first time I thought that being a physicist might actually be exciting. As a child I had been fascinated with science, but the science I had studied was always removed from me by at least a half century, and thus it hovered very close to history. The fact that not all of nature’s mysteries had been solved was not yet firmly planted in my mind.

The epiphany occurred while I was attending a high school summer program on science. I don’t know if I appeared bored or not, but my teacher, following our regularly scheduled lesson, gave me a book titled
The Character of Physical Law
by Richard Feynman and told me to read the chapter on the distinction between past and future. It was my first contact with the notion of entropy and disorder, and like many people before me, including the great physicists Ludwig Boltzmann and Paul Ehrenfest, who killed themselves after devoting much of their careers to developing this subject, it left me befuddled and frustrated. How the world changes as one goes from considering simple problems involving two objects, like the earth and the moon, to a system involving many particles, like the gas molecules in the room in which I am typing this, is both subtle and profound—no doubt too subtle and profound for me to appreciate at the time.

But then, the next day, my teacher asked me if I had ever heard of antimatter, and he proceeded to tell me that this same guy Feynman had recently won the Nobel Prize because he explained how an antiparticle could be thought of as a particle going backward in time. Now that really fascinated me, although I didn’t understand any of the details (and in retrospect I realize my teacher didn’t either). But the notion that these kinds of discoveries were happening during my lifetime inspired me to think that there was a lot left to explore. (Actually while my conclusion was true, the information that led to it wasn’t. Feynman had published his Nobel Prize–winning work on quantum electrodynamics almost a decade before I was born, and the ancillary idea that antiparticles could be thought of as particles going backward in time wasn’t even his. Alas, by the time ideas filter down to high school teachers and texts, the physics is usually twenty-five to thirty years old, and sometimes not quite right.)

As I went on to study physics, Feynman became for me, as he did for an entire generation, a hero and a legend. I bought his
Feynman Lectures on Physics
when I entered college, as did most other aspiring young physicists, even though I never actually took a course in which these books were used. But also like most of my peers, I continued to turn to them long after I had moved on from the so-called introductory course in physics on which his books were based. It was while reading these books that I discovered how my summer experience was oddly reminiscent of a similar singular experience that Feynman had had in high school. More about that later. For now I will just say that I only wish the results in my case had been as significant.

It was probably not until graduate school that I fully began to understand the ramifications of what that science teacher had been trying to relate to me, but my fascination with the world of fundamental particles, and the world of this interesting guy Feynman, who wrote about it, began that summer morning in high school and in large part has never stopped. I just remembered, as I was writing this, that I chose to write my senior thesis on path integrals, the subject Feynman pioneered.

Through a simple twist of fate, I was fortunate enough to meet and spend time with Richard Feynman while I was still an undergraduate. At the time I was involved with an organization called the Canadian Undergraduate Physics Association, whose sole purpose was to organize a nationwide conference during which distinguished physicists gave lectures and undergraduates presented results from their summer research projects. It was in 1974, I think, that Feynman had been induced (or seduced, I don’t know and shouldn’t presume) by the very attractive president of the organization to be the keynote speaker at that year’s conference in Vancouver. At the meeting I had the temerity to ask him a question after his lecture, and a photographer from a national magazine took a picture of the moment and used the photo, but more important, I had brought my girlfriend along with me, and one thing led to another and Feynman spent much of the weekend hanging out with the two of us in some local bars.

Later, while I was at graduate school at MIT, I heard Feynman lecture several times. Years later still, after I had received my PhD and moved to Harvard, I presented a colloquium at Caltech, and Feynman was in the audience, which was slightly unnerving. He politely asked a question or two and then came up afterward to continue the discussion. I expect he had no memory of our meeting in Vancouver, and I am forever regretful of the fact that I never found out, because while he waited patiently to talk to me, a persistent and rather annoying young assistant professor monopolized the discussion until Feynman finally walked off. I never saw him again, as he died a few years later.

a legend for a whole generation of physicists long before anyone in the public knew who he was. Getting a Nobel Prize may have put him on the front page of newspapers around the world, but the next day there are new headlines, and any popular name recognition usually lasts about as long as the newspaper itself. Feynman’s popular fame thus did not arise from his scientific discoveries, but began through a series of books recounting his personal reminiscences. Feynman the raconteur was every bit as creative and fascinating as Feynman the physicist. Anyone who came into personal contact with him had to be struck immediately by his wealth of charisma. His piercing eyes, impish smile, and New York accent combined to produce the very antithesis of a stereotypical scientist, and his personal fascination with such things as bongo drums and strip bars only added to his mystique.

As often happens however, the real catalyst that made Feynman a public figure arose by accident, in this case a tragic accident: the explosion shortly after liftoff of the
space shuttle, which was carrying the first “civilian,” a public school teacher who was scheduled to teach some classes from space. During the investigation that ensued, Feynman was asked to join the NASA investigatory panel, and in an uncharacteristic moment (he studiously avoided committees and anything else that kept him away from his work), he agreed.

Feynman pursued the task in his own, equally uncharacteristic way. Rather than study reports and focus on bureaucratic proposals for the future, Feynman talked directly to the engineers and scientists at NASA, and in a famous moment during the televised hearings, he performed an experiment, putting a small rubber O-ring in a glass of ice water and thus demonstrating that the O-rings used to seal the rocket could fail under temperatures as cold as those on the day of the ill-fated launch.

Since that day, books chronicling his reminiscences, compilations of his letters, audiotapes of “lost lectures,” and so on, have appeared, and following his death, his legend has continued to grow. Popular Feynman biographies have also been published, with the most notable being James Gleick’s masterful

Feynman the human being will always remain fascinating, but when I was approached about producing a short and accessible volume that might reflect Feynman the man as seen through his scientific contributions, I couldn’t resist. The exercise motivated me because I would be reviewing all of his original papers. (Most people may not realize that it is rare for scientists to go back to the original literature in their field, especially if the work is more than a generation old. Scientific ideas get distilled and refined, and most modern presentations of the same physics often bear very little resemblance to the initial formulations.) But more important, I realized that Feynman’s physics provides, in microcosm, a perspective on the key developments in physics over the second half of the twentieth century, and many of the puzzles he left unresolved remain with us today.

In what follows I have tried to do justice to both the letter and the spirit of Feynman’s work in a way in which he might have approved. Perhaps for this reason this book is first and foremost about Feynman’s impact on our current understanding of nature, as reflected within the context of a personal scientific biography. I will devote little space to the many arcane blind alleys and red herrings that lure even the most successful scientists—and Feynman was no exception—as they claw their way to scientific understanding. It is hard enough, without having to sort through these false starts, for nonexperts to gain a proper perspective of what physicists have learned about the natural world. No matter how elegant or brilliant some of the false starts may be, ultimately what matters are the ideas that have survived by satisfying the test of experiment.

My modest goal therefore is to focus on Feynman’s scientific legacy as it has affected the revolutionary discoveries of twentieth-century physics, and as it may impact any unraveling of the mysteries of the twenty-first century. The insight I really want to reveal to nonphysicists, if I can, is why Feynman has reached the status of a mythic hero to most physicists now alive on the planet. If I can capture that, I will have helped readers understand something central about modern physics and Feynman’s role in changing our picture of the world. That, to me, is the best testimony I can give to the genius that was Richard Feynman.

BOOK: Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science
3.08Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

The Lost Night by Jayne Castle
The Maggie Murders by Lomas, J P
The Last Dance by Scott,Kierney
Tristano Dies by Antonio Tabucchi
Even Grimmer Tales by Valerie Volk
Wicked Pleasures by Penny Vincenzi