Although I rarely buy a random book these days, I recently had 10 minutes at the local bookstore and an imminent trip to Europe (I am writing this from a TGV car zooming across France), while my son gathered up more insight into those college entrance exams. On the recent releases/nonfiction table I came upon “the book of the year,” according to Physics World (now there’s a dubious distinction) written by “… the director of the Origins Project at ASU. Hailed by Scientific American as a rare public intellectual …the author of … The Physics of Star Trek.” Perhaps more to the point, yet another book on Richard Feynman – with the yet another book being an original impediment to my interest.
So, I am writing to let you know I found this book to be very useful for bringing me back up to speed on the world of particle and quantum physics, which I dropped out of following my undergraduate physics days. As an undergraduate, I was at the University of Minnesota and took advanced physics from Prof. Steven Gasiorowicz and advanced astrophysics from Prof. Ed Ney. Prof. Gasiorowicz, I learned later, was actually an active and leading figure in particle physics. I do recall one particular lecture day where he abandoned the textbook (that he wrote) to teach us something about the particle that was discovered that week.
The author of this new book on Feynman, as advertised, is clearly a top-of-the-top physicist in his own right and as a result he was able to collect and present a comprehensible (for the first time in my case at least) compilation of physics from 1945 to 1988 - what will come to be known, I expect, as The Feynman Era. This book is clearly dedicated to all of us, and I expect there are some among this readership, who bought Feynman’s QED book naively thinking, as I did, that it would catch you up on the field. I believe I gave up on page 5. However, today, after reading “Quantum Man,” (catchy title) by Lawrence M. Krauss ($15.95, and it was even 20% off), I do feel I could hold my own in a dinner conversation on the state of physics with the President of the University or others I come in contact with on occasion, including the concepts and procedures related to QED and even QCD, for the first time. The author is clearly one of only a few people capable of reading and comprehending all of Feynman’s work and then presenting it in a structure that mere mortals can assimilate. In fact, as an interesting point, the author took on this project because it would force him to read all of Feynman’s work in one shot and reflect on its impact.
So you can make some decision on whether this book would be a good addition to your “book to take on my next cross-country or cross-pond flight” collection, I’ll highlight a few of the things I left with. It is somewhat relevant to note that the author did not know Feynman personally; he only saw him from the audience or met briefly with him. This book is based on the author reading, or, in many cases, rereading every single paper Feynman wrote in his lifetime. It seems clear that this author has both the background and, more significantly, the capacities to process, organize, and downshift the topics and outcomes to the level where I at least learned many concepts and facts related to particle physics and quantum theory from the period of 1945-1988. However, I did not achieve the ability to interpret a Feynman diagram; close, maybe. The other significant topic that is not present is any treatment of string theory (if you end up reading this book and then can point me to a similar book on string theory, I might think that I have physics covered, at least for the moment).
Image credit: Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Feynman_diagram
The first thing that this book completed for me was the relatively simple question of where did the first large computer end up. We know from earlier blogs that James Baker got the second computer produced by IBM in 1944 for the purpose of designing reconnaissance lenses during and after WWII. I had hypothesized earlier that the Manhattan Project was the destination for the first one. Here we find out that IBM did indeed ship the first computer, in 24 crates, to Los Alamos in 1944. It is accompanied now by a legend that Feynman and his team assembled the contents of the 24 creates and had it up and running perfectly before the IBM technicians arrived to perform that task. Feynman, then 24, was put in charge of the computational group, and this significant computer, to do the critical calculations and estimates that led to success.
One of the features of the book that I like (and there are many) is the author reminds us of the realities of this time before commercial airlines, cell phones, and the Internet, where getting from New York to New Mexico could be a book in itself.
Of significance for us in optics, Krauss reports that Feynman’s first commitment to a thriving interest in physics is created by his high school physics teacher pulling him aside and showing him Fermat’s principle, which then led to an introduction to concepts introduced by Lagrange. From here, we are apprised of highlights of his undergraduate experiences at MIT, which clearly establishes a perspective on how some of Feynman’s approaches to problems were formulate - such as his need to begin every problem at the base level to ensure that he had a complete understanding before he moved a problem ahead.
We learn that in 1939 Feynman entered a national mathematics competition, where he set a new standard of excellence, never before seen, and in doing so put himself in a position to obtain full support anywhere he wanted; he decided on Princeton. Upon arriving, he was assigned to Wheeler, then a young assistant professor who went on to write a/the definitive book on Gravitation, which I am still considering trying to read, but, after the experience with QED, I’m not so sure. If I understand it, Feynman’s first substantial insight, which he carried throughout his career, was he postulated that many solutions to complex problems can be found more directly by allowing time to run backwards for a bit, when accounting for the dynamics of complex interactions. According to the book, his first talk during his graduate career was attended by none other than Albert Einstein, Wigner, and von Neumann. In the end, apparently, Feynman and Wheeler’s ideas on using brief time reversal did not go forward, but, in the interim, Feynman had an interaction that led to him revealing a significant extension to Dirac’s work, which led to his thesis, published finally in the late 40s, “The Space-Time Approach to Non-Relativistic Quantum Mechanics.”
Before I garble the author’s presentation, let me turn it over to you, the reader, to decide whether this book is for you. It describes fascinating and complex interactions between Feynman and many of the famous physicists of the time. It also allows you to come away with a nontrivial perspective on both Feynman and to some extent, more importantly, the physics of his era. Finally, it indirectly points to something of societal importance and direct relevance to my current work. Feynman’s most important contribution to science may be the Feynman diagram. While I still don’t understand it, in general it is a construct that has allowed hundreds and probably even thousands of physics hopefuls to launch successfully into a space where few dare to enter. Now, all I need is the vie;fan yz 61;cab;fld f1 red;fld f2 blu;fld f3 blu;sf .125;go equivalent for nodal aberration theory – I’m working on it.