Richard Feynman’s “Basic Physics” – Jordan Cannon

The life and science of Richard Feynman were emblematic of the tumultuous age in which he lived. Though born to Jewish parents, religious tradition was as distant a memory for Feynman as his parents’ original homeland of Poland. Feynman could only be convinced of that which he could observe and measure—he wondered how people could be so concerned with studying the past when so many new and revelatory discoveries were occurring in the present as a result of science and pure reason.

Feynman (center) and Oppenheimer (right) in Los Alamos, NM. c. 1946.

Feynman (center) and Oppenheimer (right) in Los Alamos, NM.
c. 1946.

In the 1930s, the study of physics both in the United States and at large were undergoing far-reaching and inexorable paradigmatic shifts spurred on in the wake of World War I. As the young upstart on the international scene, America and its higher education establishment sought success and recognition through the study of physics and mathematics, which was a fortuitous decision for two reasons. Firstly, physics, mathematics and the hard sciences are viewed as highly attractive fields for first and second-generation immigrants because of their meritocratic reputations. Anti-Semitism and other forms of prejudice, while still pervasive due to the systematic imposition of Jewish quotas, were considered much less of a hindrance than what would be encountered in other fields. Also, in the laboratories of Europe, the study of physics was being fundamentally transformed from the intuitive, classical conceptions of Newton to the perplexing, infuriating reality of particle behavior. This new field of inquiry created a golden opportunity for the United States to borrow from the European masters (i.e. Bohr, Dirac, etc.) and to catapult to the cutting edge through government encouragement and spending. The strategy worked spectacularly and on August 6, 1945 culminated in the explosive achievement of a few young physicists who convened in Los Alamos, New Mexico.

Feynman went on to become a brilliant teacher of the public at Caltech and was widely renowned throughout his career for his ability to reduce complex notions to their most basic components. Fortunately, his musings have been compiled in what is informally known as “The Red Book Lectures”, where in a particular chapter he describes the shift of thinking from the pre-quantum era to age of modern physics and the implications of the radical departure from such cherished and firmly established notions.

In perfect Feynman form, he begins the chapter by asking the reader to imagine all of the sights, sounds, and smells one would experience standing on the beach of an ocean, attempting to fill the reader’s senses with all the activity in the immediate environment. Feynman grew up on the eastern seaboard on the outskirts of New York City before its sprawling urbanization consumed all towns in the surrounding area, so this sight was most likely quite familiar and comforting to his precocious youth. The biological and physical diversity of this location serves as a concrete example of what Feynman explains as the aspiration of physics from basic to theoretical: the primary goal is to integrate each of the disparate specializations of scientific study (i.e. electromagnetism, heat, mechanics, etc.) into a “complete nature”—a theory that peers at the laws behind the experiment and transcends the various physical subdivisions for a single, over-arching explanation. Put simply, “What are things made of and how few elements are there?” The discoveries of quantum mechanics have since made that vision more utopian than ever, but intense energy is still being concentrated towards moving science into this final realm.

Einstein lecturing in Vienna, 1921.

Einstein lecturing in Vienna, 1921.

Feynman selects the year 1920 as the watershed moment beginning a vastly different worldview, concerning all facets of the universe from an atomic nucleus to the largest stars. Before this time, only ideas that fit neatly into the Euclidian universe were given credibility in academic discourse. Waves were waves, particles were particles, and Newtonian mechanics explained enough to be considered infallible universal laws. It was a simpler time, indeed. The “stage” on which things played out consisted of exactly ninety-two elements within a three-dimensional space of geometry, which was constantly changing in a medium called time.

An impressive and easily digestible rundown of the primary tenants of pre-1920 thought from electromagnetic waves to the properties of atoms not only gives Feynman the opportunity to refresh these basic concepts in the minds of readers, but also gives him a means to illustrate the contradictions involved in implementing quantum theory. Firstly, as waves approach higher frequencies, their behavior becomes oddly particle-like. Einstein scraped Euclid’s straightforward model of three-dimensional space in favor of the model of an amalgamation that results in space-time, which is curved by gravitational force. Feynman warns the reader to relinquish all preconceived notions of the “natural world” because, put simply, all that high school physics classes teach you has no place in the atomic world. But everything is fine, says Feynman. In fact, as soon as you accept that, on the atomic level, everything you were told about how the world works is wrong, the uncertainty you begin to experience is perfect preparation for an adequate understanding of particle physics.

Werner Heisenberg 1901 – 1976. c. 1933.

Werner Heisenberg 1901 – 1976. c. 1933.

Arguably the most widely known law in quantum mechanics, and now the most famous uncertainty in the study of physics is Heisenberg’s discovery that a particle’s position and momentum are impossible to know simultaneously. Feynman explains the implications of this law which include why electrons don’t fall into the nucleus given their respective negative and positive charges (the electron’s position would then be known, giving it an immense kinetic energy with which it would break away from the nucleus’s orbit) and why if a crystal is cooled to absolute zero, its particles must still jiggle. Such paradoxical principles are the bread and butter of quantum physics, and no other principles have an impact of the same magnitude in either science or philosophy like the law in quantum mechanics which bluntly states that it is fundamentally impossible to predict exactly what will happen in any circumstance. But do not fret, Feynman advises, all is not lost. In his characteristic disdain for philosophy, he advises the public not to invest heavily in its impossibly rigid standards of what science must be and instead place its trust in experiments, while the results and statistics will take care of the rest.

“This, then, is the horrible condition of our physics today,” Feynman unabashedly declared. While what we know of quantum mechanics has yet to fail, a consensus of those in the field agree that what lurks in the unknown appears much larger and lacks a comparison in human scientific history. Science must trudge into the murky world of protons, positrons, antimatter, and mesons with only the most fundamental understanding of how they work and interact. The relativistic “stage” of curved space-time has been set and the only way forward is inward.

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