The Elvis Presley of ScienceBook review by
Yuval Ne'emanpublished in the Ha'aretz (October 8, 1999)
"The Meaning of It All," by Richard Feynman, Perseus Press, 133 pages.
Theoretical physicists must be endowed with an innate feel for physics and
a talent for mathematics. Richard Feynman (1918-1988), a brilliant physicist
who made a number of outstanding contributions in the field, was blessed
with both. His reconstruction in 1948 of quantum electrodynamics (QED),
regarded today as the most precise theory in physics, is certainly his most
important contribution. Eighteen years later, in 1965, it won him the Nobel
Prize for Physics.
|Gell-Mann and Ne'eman talking about Feynman. Photo by Y. S. Kim (May 1988).|
The three prize laureates had solved the problem of how electrical and magnetic forces act at the atomic and subatomic levels. Wolfgang Pauli and Victor Weisskopf, who grappled with this problem in 1932, found themselves up against what seemed to be an insurmountable obstacle: the problem of "infinite divergences." The strength of the repulsive force between two identical electrical charges is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between them, and quickly increases as they come closer. As the distance between them approaches zero, the repulsive force becomes infinite. Now let us imagine an electron as a tiny globe bearing an electrical charge. Drawing an imaginary equator, we can see the two "hemispheres," each carrying one half of the electron's charge. Of course, these two halves should experience a tremendous mutual repulsion, being so close. Repeating the procedure and dividing each of the two hemispheres into quarters would presumably produce another great surge of repulsive tension. If the electron and its charge are no larger than a minuscule dot, our conclusion must be that there is an infinite amount of inner tension within the electron, which is to say an infinite amount of energy! Moreover, if one applies Einstein's E=mc2, the mass of the electron should be infinite, too. And yet, this is not what we observe in reality. Every calculation of the motion of electrons within the atom had to take such phenomena into account, and ended up in infinities.
The task was thus to somehow "subtract" these infinities from the calculation and obtain precise quantitative predictions, while trying to understand the essence of this subtraction and the justification for it. This is the problem that all three scientists solved, each in his own way. In Japan, which had been cut off from the scientific centers in the West since World War II, Tomonaga had already come up with a solution in 1946, but no one in the West knew about it until 1949. Meanwhile, Schwinger and Feynman published their work, and it was initially believed that each of the three scientists had discovered a different solution. It was thought that experiments would be needed to determine which of them was right. But then a young Englishman by the name of Freeman Dyson, then a research student of Feynman's at Cornell University, came along and proved that all three solutions were identical. Despite the very different approaches, they all produced the same physical result.
Nevertheless, Feynman's solution was, and still is, much more intuitive and easier to comprehend than those of Schwinger and Tomonaga. Moreover, Feynman's diagrams have become the foundation for a new and more far-reaching formulation of quantum theory in general, which is why he is such an admired figure among theoretical physicists. Freeman Dyson, whose work was instrumental in bringing this scientific achievement to fruition, was not among the Nobel Prize laureates. Years later, however, he was doubly compensated - and in Israel, for some reason: The Technion awarded him the Harvey Prize in 1972, and the Knesset awarded him the Wolf Prize in 1981.
Of the three, Feynman was the only one who achieved real fame in his lifetime, and since his death, he is the sole physicist - with the exception, perhaps, of Albert Einstein and Stephen Hawking - who has won wide public acclaim outside the scientific community. In our day, Feynman is practically the Elvis Presley of science - the "king."
I believe there are two main reasons for this. First of all, Feynman had a great flair for drama, which made him a fascinating storyteller. This talent enabled him to explain complex scientific phenomena in a way that others could understand. In 1964, for example, when the omega minus particle was discovered, confirming the "eightfold way," a theory I developed in 1961 - as did Murray Gell-Mann simultaneously - Feynman was asked to present the subject on a BBC television documentary called "Strangeness Minus Three," which he did very convincingly.
Feynman's rhetorical skills are also evident in the reprints of special lectures he gave from time to time, collected in book form. One of the most notable is "QED: the Strange Theory of Light and Matter," in which he brings out the counter-intuitive features of the quantum world. His professional lectures at the California Institute of Technology - Caltech - also won high praise, and copies of his "Lectures in Physics" are still on sale today.
To digress for a moment, I would like to discuss Feynman's second greatest contribution to physics: his analysis and identification of "partons." The "eightfold way" involved the classification of elementary particles of matter, about 100 in number, which sense the strong nuclear force. After Gell-Mann and I came out with our theory, the question arose of why the particles follow this particular order. In 1962, I wrote a paper together with Haim Goldberg-Ophir in which we proposed a structural explanation: the existence of three kinds of fundamental "building blocks" which make up protons and neutrons within the atomic nucleus (proton = aab, neutron = abb, omega minus = ccc, and so on).
The following year, this model was improved upon by Gell-Mann, and independently by George Zweig, and Gell-Mann named the building blocks "quarks." In 1967, Feynman and Stanford University physicist James Bjorken showed how one could derive information about the "building blocks," which Feynman called "partons" at this stage so as not to be beholden to our model, via "invasive" tests. Experiments were conducted throughout 1968-1969, and it was finally concluded that the building blocks we had described - quarks - were indeed there. Three experimental physicists - Jerome Friedman, Henry Kendall and Richard Taylor - won the Nobel Prize for their work on this subject in 1990. Feynman's method of seeking out and identifying these partons is considered his second most important contribution to physics after quantum electrodynamics.
To some extent, Feynman remained an overgrown child all his life. We became good friends when I arrived at Caltech in 1963 for a two-year fellowship - he had been teaching there since 1954 - and we met whenever I went back. He would never pass up the opportunity to play a practical joke. Those who worked on the Manhattan Project always remember how the young Feynman would break into the safes of the security personnel and leave personally signed notes saying "I was here." Toward the end of his life, his colleagues at Caltech put out a two-volume series of anecdotes he liked to tell. Many of them have to do with the funnier side of life, an unusual hobby (he played the drums), or how he managed in all kinds of situations - like the time he beat a Japanese abacus expert able to perform calculations at amazing speed by quickly analyzing the way an abacus works and focusing on its weaknesses. The series is called "Adventures of a Curious Character," and even the individual titles bear that out: "You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman," and "What Do You Care What Others Think?" A book was even written about Feynman's collection of triangular stamps from Tuva, an autonomous republic in Central Asia, between Russia and China.
This boyish streak was also evident in the "contest" which developed after Gell-Mann won his Nobel Prize in 1969. the tension between Feynman and Gell-Mann grew over the years, but it was basically a childish fight. Feynman liked to keep score, for example. "He has nothing over me," Feynman told my wife in 1976. "He has an English wife, and so do I. He goes bird-watching, and I practice sensual deprivation, sitting in the dark for a day or two until the senses stop responding."
In one sphere, at least, Feynman made a deliberate effort to play the role of enfant terrible. Combining his love for scientific truth and his hatred of "impostors," he was always willing to play cat- and-mouse games to expose flaws and pretense - all of which made him the terror of lecturers who came to Caltech to present their intellectual wares. On my first visit, I gave a series of ten lectures on "group theory," the mathematical apparatus I used, and Feynman interrupted me with questions every 3-4 minutes. I knew the material, however, and in the end it was Feynman who got tired out. On the other hand, I remember the visit of a well-known Swiss physicist, Johann Jauch, who after half an hour of torture, flung the chalk away, announced he could not go on this way, and walked out the door.
In 1976, Werner Heisenberg, one of the leading physicists of the 20th century, made a stop at Caltech as part of a cross-country lecture tour. Since 1950, he had been expounding a certain theory that was generally acknowledged as worthless. Out of respect, however, people usually refrained from arguing with him. His lecture at Caltech was on this theory. Gell-Mann stayed away purposely, but Feynman was there and made his presence felt. At a certain point he got up and shouted: "If that's so, your theory is crap." Mortified, Heisenberg left the hall, and according to the distinguished physicist Harald Fritzsch, who was at Caltech at the time and on close terms with him, he never recovered from the shock. He died that same year.
But there was someone who gave Feynman a taste of his own medicine. The Norwegian-American physicist Ivar Giaever once suffered through a lecture with Feynman. Two years later, he came back to Caltech to give another lecture. This time, however, Giaever not only answered Feynman to the point, but made him look stupid. Obviously, he had done a good job of preparing ahead, deliberately slipping in remarks to provoke Feynman - who walked straight into his trap. Everyone in the lecture hall could feel how stunned Feynman was.
With respect to Feynman's Jewishness, his parents sent him to Sunday school to learn Hebrew, but the emphasis was on prayer, which turned him off. Two recent biographies of Feynman quote selections of the correspondence that preceded his acceptance to Princeton University as a graduate student in 1939. Princeton at that time still operated according to the numerus clausus policy which limited the number of Jews, and Feynman's professors at MIT, where he did his bachelors' degree, had to work hard to convince the Princeton administration that this particular Jew ought to be admitted. "He is not like other Jews," they wrote. Protocols of the appointment committee at the University of Zurich show that the same argument was resorted to when Albert Einstein's professorship was being reviewed in 1909.
Feynman's Sunday school days apparently left him with a rather distorted picture of Judaism, and even after spending several days in the company of a group of rabbinical school students - described quite favorably in "You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman" - the achievements of 3,500 years of Judaism were lost on him. When I left Caltech for a week in October 1964 for the dedication of the Tel Aviv University campus, Feynman, Gell-Mann and I had dinner together and the subject of Israel and the Jews came up. "Why preserve this fossil?" Feynman asked me at the table, referring to the Jewish people. "Wouldn't it be better to speed up assimilation?" As I tried to list the many contributions Jews had made to humanity, including achievements in modern science, he cut me off. "Jews in science? Compare that with the Hungarians! Look what an impact they've had!" To which Gell-Mann responded: "Don't you know that all those Hungarians were Jews?" And apparently, he didn't.
At that point, the two of them began to discuss their Jewish roots. Although they had been working together for ten years, it turns out that this was a topic they had never broached before. Feynman even joked about the unusual way Gell-Mann spelled his name. "Where does the hyphenated Gell-Mann family come from?" Feynman asked him, hinting it was a cover-up to conceal his Jewish origins.
Nowadays, attitudes seem to have changed. In 1997, The New Republic sponsored a symposium on "One Hundred Years of Zionism." Among the 15 speakers were two of the world's leading particle physicists, Nobel Prize laureate Steven Weinberg and Edward Witten, winner of the Field's Medal (the "Nobel Prize" for mathematicians). The two hold very different political views - Weinberg is defense- oriented while Witten is a Peace Now supporter, but neither has any qualms about being Jewish.
I invited Feynman to visit Israel on many occasions, but he always turned me down. He seemed to have had this fear of over-identification with the Jewish people, although he never said as much. He went all over the world - but never set foot in the Jewish state. Once, though, I did see a different Feynman. We were at a physics conference in Rochester, New York in September 1967, three months after the Six-Day War, something shook him out of his customary neutrality. He spent the whole evening dispensing astute advice based on his analysis of the situation. He predicted, for example, that because the Arabs could not defeat us in an ordinary war, they would now concentrate mainly on terrorism, and Israel would do well to prepare itself accordingly.
Feynman's talents as a storyteller and actor, combined with his mischievous streak and his scientific reputation, have made him more than an idol to intelligent young people. He has become an all- out popular hero. Since his death, several biographies have appeared, the best of them being "Richard Feynman: A Life in Science" by John and Mary Gribbin (Dayton Books), and "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman," by James Glick, a science writer for the New York Times (Vintage Books). As the Feynman craze has spread, institutions and universities he lectured at have begun to search their archives and publish whatever material they can find. "The Meaning of It All," for example, is a reprint of three guest lectures delivered by Feynman at the University of Washington in Seattle in the spring of 1963.
The lectures deal with the interplay between science and "everything else." The ideological foundation of the book is the contrast between the empiricism of science - theories are discarded when the facts no longer bear them out, everything is based on assumptions about which there is no absolute certainty, and no idea is sacred - and the dogmatism that characterizes religion and politics. Each lecture adds to this motif. The first lecture describes various aspects of scientific activity as a whole, the second explores religious concepts, and the third addresses an assortment of non-scientific issues.
In the first lecture, Feynman urges caution in analyzing the results of experiments and reaching statistical conclusions, and talks about the importance of objectivity and impartiality in scientific thinking. This is the same dispute now going on between the natural sciences and "post-modernist" philosophers, who argue that science is subjective. What is interesting is that Feynman already recognized the need for being strict about objectivity back then. Another point he emphasizes is distinguishing between a scientific discovery, which expresses our desire to understand the universe, and exploiting those findings for the purpose of war or peace. The scientist, he says, is responsible for seeking out knowledge; putting that knowledge to use is the responsibility of society and its political institutions. And then there is humility. Not only are we descended from the apes, but today we know that human beings and insects have a common origin, sharing DNA molecules as do all species of plants and living creatures.
The second lecture opens with an attack on religious fundamentalism, the root of so much evil over the ages. Feynman distinguishes between three levels of religious belief: metaphysical, which he dismisses because of the "incontestable certainty" that characterizes it; moral and ethical, which he perceives as important and having no scientific alternative, but like science, also in need of a concrete basis founded on ad hoc logic; and inspirational.. On the one hand, he says, science cannot rule out the existence of God; on the other, most men of science do not believe in Divine Providence as their eyes open to the enormous dimensions of the universe and the puny role that man - and perhaps life as a whole - plays in it. Feynman goes on to refute statistical claims in the spheres of parapsychology and telepathy, discuss fascism and ideological paranoia, and express his concern for democracy, especially in countries where the army is stronger than the political establishment.
In the third lecture, Feynman has more to say about these subjects, but also brings up new ones, such as the importance of truthful reporting in the event of failures in the American space program. Twenty years later, Feynman came back to this issue as a member of the federal commission established to investigate the tragic explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. Feynman was the one who discovered what caused the accident: a cylindrical seal made of a material which contracts at low temperatures. The seal contracted, and allowed fuel to escape. This finding, and the way Feynman explained it to the commission and TV viewers, added considerably to his fame outside the walls of academia.
The rest of the lecture addresses a whole range of topics not directly related to one another - a sort of "everything I have to say on subjects outside science." Feynman even proposes reforming non-phonetic English spelling to make life easier for elementary school students. At one point, he expresses concern for the liberation of oppressed peoples. Allow me to say that even while I was involved in Israeli politics (1979-1992), I tried not to pay too much heed to experts who express opinions in spheres outside their field of expertise. Their ideas may be interesting, but factual errors can creep in or entire aspects can be overlooked because they are not directly involved. I prefer Feynman talking about physics and science to Feynman talking about dictatorships or economic problems - although Feynman, it is true, is quite cautious in his remarks.
For those who cannot handle heavy scientific material, I would recommend Feynman's popular science books - but if you have already read them or do not enjoy popular science, I heartily recommend this book as a means of getting to know the man and his view of the world beyond science.
Prof. Yuval Ne'eman is a theoretical physicist and former minister of science. His latest book, "Order out of Randomness: Science and Society in an Evolutionary View," was published by Kibbutz Hameuhad and the Van Leer Institute.