What defines genius? Real genius, not just the smart kid in the back of the class with all the answers. People like Galileo, Da Vinci, Einstein. The brilliant minds that take standard concepts, turn them upside down, and show us exactly why it never made such sense to us before. They take two dimensional images, and show us three dimensional truths.
Or in the case of Richard Feynman, they take the most basic bits of the universe, and give us quantum electrodynamics. Feynman was a brilliant mathematician and physicist, and arguably one of the greatest science lecturers of all time. Let’s delve for a bit, via Feynman, into the wacky, weird world of energy: the stuff everything you have ever known or interacted with (including yourself, and this computer screen!) is composed of.
Now, I’m no physicist, but listening to Feynman’s lectures and interviews motivates me to learn more about the big majestic mystery of our physical universe. Born in 1918 in New York, Feynman was an intelligent student who had mastered differential and integral calculus by the time he was 15. He was turned away from Columbia University before being accepted at the famed MIT in Boston. After completing his bachelor’s, he then went on to Princeton, excelling constantly in physics, mathematics, and computational sciences. Indeed, his reputation for unprecedented thinking, clarifying lectures, and charming genius was so great that Albert Einstein himself attended his first graduate lecture. He was on his way to revolutionizing the field of physics, generating theories that are still being studied as our technology advances enough to measure it in laboratories. Feynman’s reputation even led him to the Manhattan Project, at the tender age of 24.
If you’re not into atomic or war history, the Manhattan Project was a secret project developed by the American government, that led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. The Manhattan Project operated from 1942-1946 in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and Feynman was a major contributor in the theoretical and computational division. Feynman has said that his idea of assisting on the project with the purpose of defending the US against Germany and Japan (who were supposed to be racing to develop the bomb first), should have dissipated when the threat did. He continued on with the work, stating that he was driven by solving the problem, not thinking deeply about the moral complications. He was also present at the Trinity Bomb test – the first atomic explosion, and the official inception of the Atomic Age. Shortly after, and despite the pleading of Robert Oppenheimer (head of the Los Alamos lab) to stay and continue contributing, Feynman took a post at Cornell briefly. He claimed he was uninspired by the atmosphere and close to burning out intellectually there, so he took a post at Cal Tech, where he ended up doing some of his best research. This includes:
- a model of weak decay: The ‘weak’ interaction is one of the four fundamental forces of the universe, along with the strong nuclear, electromagnetic, and gravity. The interactions of these forces control all the little bits of our universe that cannot be broken down any further; the rules that regulate our most basic building blocks (that we know of). According to the Standard Theory, these are known as quarks, leptons, gauge bosons and higg boson (You may have heard about the Higgs-Boson, as it has been appearing quite frequently in the news. It is the only undiscovered particle of these, and scientists are quite close to finding it, thanks to the Large Hadron Collider’s incredible technology). While gravity is most commonly known force to us regular folks, the weak force controls quarks and leptons – known collectively as ‘fermions’ because they are the two particles of matter, not light. Weak force controls both radioactive decay, and hydrogen fusion – the force allowing the sun to shine, and all life to live. You may not think it’s that important, but without the weak force, there is no you, because there would be no universe, no sun, no energy to get that tan in the summer! A classic example of weak decay is when a neutron breaks down into a proton, electron, and anti-neutrino. Feynman ultimately developed a new and succinctly described model for this decay factor, incorporating ideas that had been lacking before.
- physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium: Helium is the second most abundant particle in the observable universe, and its behaviour is amongst the strangest of all. It also has the unique property of having one of the lowest boiling and melting points: -269°C and -272°C respectively. In liquid form, helium had been observed to behave rather bizarrely when it was cooled slightly below the boiling point (Check out this excellent video for a visual representation). Feynman didn’t solve the whole problem, but applied the Schrödinger equation successfully to display the quantum mechanical behaviour on a macroscopic scale (I’ll try to briefly explain quantum mechanics in a moment).
- quantum electrodynamics: This is the work Feynman is best known for, and for which he won a joint Nobel Prize in 1965. The quantum world itself is a section of physics that deals in the tiniest part of matter we know about – atoms. It’s a bizarre world that breaks down all the other rules that govern our everyday life. The five main ideas behind quantum theory are:
A) Energy is not continuous, but moves in small, discreet bundles.
B) Elementary particles move like matter AND waves (excellent video explaining this crazy phenomena here).
C) This movement is intrinsically random.
D) It is impossible to know the location and momentum of a particle at the same time – the more precisely one is known, the less precise the other measurement is.
E) The quantum world is absolutely nothing like the one we live in.
Feynman was one of the founding father of the Quantum Electrodynamic Theory. While complicated, it basically describes (through mathematics) all interactions of light with matter, and of charged particles (a subatomic particle or ion with an electric charge) with one another. It was important because it was the first theory to cohesively integrate Einstein’s special relativity theory into each equation, as well as satisfying the Schrödinger equation (a problem that Paul Dirac and Norman Wiener, two scientists that had developed the theory previously, were unable to solve).
The three main concepts of Feynman’s QED theory is that: A) a photon goes from a location and time to another location and time, B) an electron goes from a location and time to another location and time, and C) an electron emits or absorbs a photon at a certain place and time. OK – what does that mean? To help explain these, Feynman came up with the self-named Feynman diagrams.
The first image shows us the symbols of parts A, B, or C of his theory. The second shows us an example of a Feynman Diagram – an ‘electron-positron annihilation’. Not to be mistaken for a Star Trek battle, this is when an negative electron (e−), and it’s opposite, a positive electron (positron [e+]) collide. This results in the annihilation of both, and photons are sent shooting out from the collision. Feynman’s theories and his well-known diagrams make ideas like this clearer, and more accessible visually to a large portion of the mathematically-disinclined population. Keep in mind, these diagrams are not set paths – just simplified suggestions representing potential quantum relationships symbolically.
It’s important to note that QED theory doesn’t tell you what will happen, but predicts the probability of what will happen. In quantum mechanics, this means that you add up the sum of all possibilities, to any given endpoint, and predict the probability of the end result based on this total sum. We can loosely think of this as taking a random walk. You’ve had a bad day at work and want to clear your mind. Without knowing your final destination, you decide to cross the road to the other side, which happens to be infinite. Your brain is (hopefully!) measuring where potholes in the road you may have to avoid are, and the probability of whether or not you will get hit by a car. Your brain then tells you when to finally move, and on what path. Your exact footsteps are not predictable, nor is where or when you will step onto the sidewalk, but your brain has calculated the possibilities. And if you were a quantum particle participating in the theory, you would end up with a path and endpoint that were the sum of all possibilities. This computational method was referred to by Feynman as the path integral formulation , and stands in contrast to previous theories that predicted a single, unique trajectory. This formula helps us to understand (or at least diversify) our understanding of the movement of the very tiny little building blocks of our universe.
Phew. If I have confused you, I’m sorry. I’m a bit confused myself at this point! Particles here, mathematics all over the chalkboard, what does that mean when I need to drag myself out of bed and go to work to feed the kids? The quantum world is difficult to grasp, and I would suspect that it’s still somewhat difficult even for the most brilliant of minds like Feynman. But that doesn’t mean its existence is irrelevant. It in fact informs everything about our lives, our composition, our beautiful planet tucked away here in this tiny corner of the universe. If our goal is to know ourselves, understanding the smallest bits is surely important, difficult as it may be. I’m sure this was one of Feynman’s motivating factors.
While working on all of these ideas and more, Feynman also dedicated a large portion of his career to teaching. While still at Cal Tech, he was asked to get the undergraduates really involved and appreciative of physics. After several years of work, this resulted in the extremely accessible, beautiful, and inspiring Feynman’s Lectures on Physics which I highly recommend if you have the remotest interest in physics. Perhaps it will clear up any confusion I may have left you floundering in today!
Now, I barely understand a percent of the incredible problems that Feynman naturally intuited, thought about deeply, and solved. However, the reason I appreciate him and his success as a physicist is due not only to his inherent genius, but also to his understanding of human nature. He was always open to new ideas and subjects, and constantly engaged his whole brain with love, academics, and artists – even creating some art himself under the pseudonym of ‘Ofey’. Watching his interviews and documentaries is always a pleasure, as he somehow manages to circumvent the common way of thinking, and present what have otherwise been very difficult concepts as clear and simple. Feynman has always managed to grasp the type of mind required to appreciate the universe – curious and humourous. As one of his colleagues best described, when you hear Feynman speak, you understand clearly the science behind physics. Once you leave the room however, you find yourself struggling to follow the same pathway that Feynman drew in your brain. I’d suspect it’s because few of us have ever taken that path before, and were so amazed by the beautiful things Feynman was showing us, that we forgot to remember the path. If we were to work hard enough though, we may be able to figure out the average probability to get back (A Feynman pun!).
Richard Fenyman continued to revolutionize and bring physics to light (another pun!) for the rest of us. He worked on the Challenger disaster of ’86, and raised awareness of the huge discrepancies between the NASA management teams and their poorly informed understanding of physics. In his rather stark review, he says quite truthfully, “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled.”
Feynman died from several forms rare cancers at the age of 69, in Los Angeles. His last words, in true humourous form, “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.”
In memory of true genius, Richard P. Feynman 1918-1988.
What is necessary “for the very existence of science” and so forth, and what the characteristics of nature are, are not to be determined by pompous preconditions. They are determined always by the material with which we work, by nature herself. We look, and we see what we find, and we cannot say ahead of time -successfully- what it is going to look like.
The most reasonable possibilities turn out often not to be the situation.
What is necessary for the very existence of science is just the ability to experiment, the honesty in reporting results -the results must be reported without somebody saying what they’d like the results to have had been rather than what they are- and finally -an important thing-, the intelligence to interpret the results but an important point about this intelligence is that it should not be sure ahead of time what must be.