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Saturday, April 20, 2013

Reading List: Quantum Man

Krauss, Lawrence. Quantum Man. New York: W. W. Norton, 2011. ISBN 978-0-393-34065-5.
A great deal has been written about the life, career, and antics of Richard Feynman, but until the present book there was not a proper scientific biography of his work in physics and its significance in the field and consequences for subsequent research. Lawrence Krauss has masterfully remedied this lacuna with this work, which provides, at a level comprehensible to the intelligent layman, both a survey of Feynman's work, both successful and not, and also a sense of how Feynman achieved what he did and what ultimately motivated him in his often lonely quest to understand.

One often-neglected contributor to Feynman's success is discussed at length: his extraordinary skill in mathematical computation, intuitive sense of the best way to proceed toward a solution (he would often skip several intermediate steps and only fill them in when preparing work for publication), and tireless perseverance in performing daunting calculations which occupied page after page of forbidding equations. This talent was quickly recognised by those with whom he worked, and as one of the most junior physicists on the project, he was placed in charge of all computation at Los Alamos during the final phases of the Manhattan Project. Eugene Wigner said of Feynman, “He's another Dirac. Only this time human.”

Feynman's intuition and computational prowess was best demonstrated by his work on quantum electrodynamics, for which he shared a Nobel prize in 1965. (Initially Feynman didn't think too much of this work—he considered it mathematical mumbo-jumbo which swept the infinities which had plagued earlier attempts at a relativistic quantum theory of light and matter under the carpet. Only later did it become apparent that Feynman's work had laid the foundation upon which a comprehensive quantum field theory of the strong and electroweak interactions could be built.) His invention of Feynman diagrams defined the language now universally used by particle physicists to describe events in which particles interact.

Feynman was driven to understand things, and to him understanding meant being able to derive a phenomenon from first principles. Often he ignored the work of others and proceeded on his own, reinventing as he went. In numerous cases, he created new techniques and provided alternative ways of looking at a problem which provided a deeper insight into its fundamentals. A monumental illustration of Feynman's ability to do this is The Feynman Lectures on Physics, based on an undergraduate course in physics Feynman taught at Caltech in 1961–1964. Few physicists would have had the audacity to reformulate all of basic physics, from vectors and statics to quantum mechanics from scratch, and probably only Feynman could have pulled it off, which he did magnificently. As undergraduate pedagogy, the course was less than successful, but the transcribed lectures have remained in print ever since, and working physicists (and even humble engineers like me) are astounded at the insights to be had in reading and re-reading Feynman's work.

Even when Feynman failed, he failed gloriously and left behind work that continues to inspire. His unsuccessful attempt to find a quantum theory of gravitation showed that Einstein's geometric theory was completely equivalent to a field theory developed from first principles and knowledge of the properties of gravity. Feynman's foray into computation produced the Feynman Lectures On Computation, one of the first comprehensive expositions of the theory of quantum computation.

A chapter is devoted to the predictions of Feynman's 1959 lecture, “Plenty of Room at the Bottom”, which is rightly viewed as the founding document of molecular nanotechnology, but, as Krauss describes, also contained the seeds of genomic biotechnology, ultra-dense data storage, and quantum material engineering. Work resulting in more than fifteen subsequent Nobel prizes is suggested in this blueprint for research. Although Feynman would go on to win his own Nobel for other work, one gets the sense he couldn't care less that others pursued the lines of investigation he sketched and were rewarded for doing so. Feynman was in the game to understand, and often didn't seem to care whether what he was pursuing was of great importance or mundane, or whether the problem he was working on from his own unique point of departure had already been solved by others long before.

Feynman was such a curious character that his larger than life personality often obscures his greatness as a scientist. This book does an excellent job of restoring that balance and showing how much his work contributed to the edifice of science in the 20th century and beyond.

Posted at April 20, 2013 23:12