Richard Feynman’s “The Theory of Gravitation” – Sarah Smith

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was an influential Danish astronomer and, through his naked-eye observations, was able to prove that both supernovae and comets existed outside of the earth’s atmosphere. Painting by Eduard Ender c. 1855.

Tycho Brahe (1546-1601) was an influential Danish astronomer and, through his naked-eye observations, was able to prove that both supernovae and comets existed outside of the earth’s atmosphere. Painting by Eduard Ender c. 1855.

It’s clear from Feynman’s lectures that he doesn’t just understand physics—he understands humans. As I discussed in my previous essay on Feynman’s “Conservation of Energy,” Feynman lectures for the everyman. Although some basic understanding of algebra is required for comprehension of Feynman’s content, he includes so much humanity that even bibliophiles like myself can “get it.” Rather than beginning with pure, straight science, Feynman introduces “The Theory of Gravitation” with the context of his discussion, a history of the topic itself featuring Tycho Brahe, Copernicus, and the planets: an admiration, he calls it, of the human mind and of the nature that follows “such an elegantly simple principle as the law of gravitation.” Throughout his chapter, Feynman presents material as relational, a characteristic that I’d say is inescapably human.

 Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was a Prussian astronomer and a proponent of the heliocentric model of the universe. The publication of his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) is often cited as the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Painting by an unknown artist c. 1580.

Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) was a Prussian astronomer and a proponent of the heliocentric model of the universe. The publication of his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (On the Revolutions of the Heavenly Spheres) is often cited as the beginning of the Scientific Revolution. Painting by an unknown artist c. 1580.

I first noted a comment of Feynman’s on the relationality of something when he talks about Kepler’s third law, which “deals not with only a single planet, but relates one planet to another.” The third law says something like this: “The squares of the periods of any two planets are proportional to the cubes” of one thing or another. In order to come to any conclusion from the law, we must consider a relationship between things. I know relationships in math are a pretty average thing to consider, but they seem to permeate Feynman’s discussion of the theory of gravitation. In further reading, I also noted the relationality of causes: things only change direction or speed when a force—some outside thing—is applied to them. Now Feynman has a tendency towards calling scientific things beautiful, and usually those beautiful things are infused with simplicity. However, there’s a spot in this lecture where Feynman describes some calculation of Newton’s, which had contained a discrepancy the first time, but when recalculated “obtained beautiful agreement.” Agreement can be simple, but in this case, I think Feynman is referring to the beauty of something other than simplicity, maybe the beauty of congruence, or harmony. Either way, this beauty, as I understand it, is at the very least something only humans could comprehend, something only humans would find compelling or find at all.

Feynman has a tendency towards humanizing—whether it’s for the sake of the non-physicist reader or for the sake of his own mind is another question. On the other hand, it’s possible that I only interpret his writing as anthropomorphism based on my non-scientific background. And that’s yet another question all its own. Regardless, mid-chapter, Feynman explains how the moon “falls” around the earth by giving a terrestrial example, namely, of shooting bullets and throwing balls. While this example isn’t human, per se, it’s certainly more intuitive than trying to understand something we’ve never experienced, like how the moon falls. Obviously, including examples such as the moon falling and applying more human characteristics to scientific features makes it all easier to understand; we comprehend things more easily when they’re like us.

In addition to his work on gravitation, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) also worked as Tycho Brahe’s assistant, improved upon the refracting telescope. Painting by an unknown artist c. 1610.

In addition to his work on gravitation, the German astronomer Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) also worked as Tycho Brahe’s assistant, improved upon the refracting telescope. Painting by an unknown artist c. 1610.

However, towards the end of Feynman’s chapter I had to stop myself from thinking so anthropocentrically, specifically, when Feynman says that “if a law does not work even in one place where it ought to, it is just wrong.” Earlier in the chapter, I had read that according to Kepler’s law, the further planets are from each other, the weaker the forces between them are, and I wondered how that implication could be applied to human relationships. If humans are far from each other, do the bonds between them weaken? I continued without pondering this too much, ideally in order to get back to what Feynman’s point really was. So when I reached Feynman’s comment on the wrongness of inapplicable laws, I began to wonder what this implied for the usefulness of humans. There aren’t any: “this—doesn’t—mean—anything / for human interaction,” my note says. The science of physics alone can’t tell us anything about human interaction because it’s just not about human interaction. We can apply humanity to science in order to understand it more, but we shouldn’t treat science as if it were human, as something that’s malleable depending on upbringing and situation and companions, and we shouldn’t treat humans as if they were science, straightforward and logical and systematic.

So while I love Feynman for what I perceive to be his anthropomorphism of physics, I also recognize that the approach has its problems. At some point, the reader who’s too into humanizing the content can be carried a little too far away in her search for implications, a little too far away from the science itself. The theory of gravitation obviously has significantly more implications for the universe as a whole than for relationships between measly humans, but all those implications can be lost in a reader’s ocean of anthropomorphism.

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2 comments

  1. I have read so many posts on the topic of the blogger lovers except this piece of writing is
    in fact a good post, keep it up.

  2. Subverting Organized Religious Science

    I embarked on comprehending gravity in the process of my Don Quixotic mission to un-theosophize religious Science of the trade-union-church AAAS.

    I pondered: IF life is just another mass format, as per my own long life experiences it is, then ALL mass formats must basically have common evolutionary origins-drives-features-ends, then the whole universe must have this same ESSENTIAL PARENT basic origin-nature.

    Thus I arrived at comprehending what gravity is and why it is the monotheism of the universe.
    And thus I became a denounced subverter of Organized Religious Science…

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    http://universe-life.com/
    ==================================

    What Holds In The Real World

    The Nobel Prize Committee Is Wrong. There is Definitely NO Higgs Particle. Gravitons are the elementary particles of the universe.
    Origin and nature of “may be gravitational waves” are continuously released gravitons since the last big-bang as singularity mass reconverts to energy.
    ============================

    On The Essence And Matrix Of The Universe-Life
    The following three sentences are the shortest data-based TOE. Seriously. Very seriously.
    The clearer the shorter

    Natural Selection to Self-Replication is Gravity

    – Self-replication is the ultimate mode of natural selection is the essence and drive and purpose of the universe. Period.
    – The pre-Big-Bang singularity is the ultimate self-replication (SR) of the cycling mass-energy universe. Period. (mother of universal SR mode…)
    – Earth’s RNA nucleotides life is just one of the myriad modes of self-replication.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    http://universe-life.com/
    http://universe-life.com/2012/11/14/701/
    -The 20yrs development, and comprehensive data-based scientism worldview, in a succinct format.
    -The Genome is a base organism evolved, and continuously modified, by the genes of its higher organism as their functional template.
    – Everything in the universe derives from mass-energy duality, from the universe cycle between its two poles all-mass/all-energy.
    – The Origin Of Gravitons is the ONLY thing unknown-unexplained in the Scientism Universe.

    PS: Spoon feeding

    The universe is a (circa 20 hillion yrs?) cyclic affair between all-mass and all-energy poles. NATURAL SELECTION of a mass format mandates energy intake because since the big-bang the resolved mass is reconverting at a constant rate from inert mass to energy, to moving mass. The mass that reconverts to energy SELF-REPLICATES to mass, in black holes, for the eventual re-singularity. The energy-to-mass SELF-REPLICATION process is GRAVITY. All this is enabled and goes on and mandated by/due to the small size and shape and inter-attraction of the gravitons that enable zero distance between them to re-form singularity. Black holes extract the gravitons from matter and store them at low energy level. Singularity is attained only ONCE per circa 20 billion years when ALL the gravitons of the universe are together at zero inter-gravitons space because it takes the totality of their combined low inter-attraction force to form the universal singularity.

    I hope that now it is understood what gravity is and why it is the monotheism of the universe…DH
    =================================================
    Black Holes Whence and Whither

    A.
    Black Holes Whence
    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/345481/title/Cohabiting_black_holes_challenge_theory
    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/351747/description/Milky_Ways_black_hole_pulling_in_gas_cloud
    From
    http://universe-life.com/2011/12/13/21st-century-science-whence-and-whither/
    http://universe-life.com/2012/09/02/all-the-mass-of-the-universe-formed-at-the-pre-big-bang-singularity/

    Galactic clusters formed by conglomeration?
    No. Galactic clusters formed by Big-Bang’s fragments dispersion, the released built-in singularity’s stresses, evidenced by their Newtonian behavior including their separation acceleration.

    The big bang is the shattering of the short-lived singularity mass into fragments that later became galactic clusters. This is inflation. The shattering is the start of movement of the shatters i.e. the start of reconversion of mass into energy, which is mass in motion. This reconversion proceeds at a constant rate since the big bang as the resolution of gravitons, their release from their shatters-clusters, proceeds at constant rate due to their weak specific force due to their small size.

    B.
    Black Holes Whither
    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/generic/id/345421/title/Team_glimpses_black_hole%E2%80%99s_secrets

    From
    http://universe-life.com/2011/12/10/eotoe-embarrassingly-obvious-theory-of-everything/

    A commonsensible conjecture is that Universe Contraction is initiated following the Big-Bang event, as released moving gravitons (energy) start reconverting to mass (gravity) and eventually returning to black holes, steadily leading to the re-formation of The Universe Singularity, simultaneously with the inflation and expansion, i.e. that universal expansion and contraction are going on simultaneously.

    Conjectured implications are that the Universe is a product of A Single Universal Black Hole with an extremely brief singularity of ALL the gravitons of the universe, which is feasible and possible and mandated because gravitation is a very weak force due to the small size of the gravitons, the primal mass-energy particles of the universe.

    This implies also that when all the mass of the presently expanding universe is consumed by the present black holes, expansion will cease and be replaced with empansion back to THE Single Universal Black Hole.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

    ===========================

    The Universe, Some Updates

    What Big Banged To Produce The Universe
    From : http://universe-life.com/2011/12/10/eotoe-embarrassingly-obvious-theory-of-everything/
    A commonsensible conjecture is that Universe Contraction is initiated following the Big-Bang event, as released moving gravitons (energy) start reconverting to mass (gravity) and eventually returning to black holes, steadily leading to the re-formation of The Universe Singularity, simultaneously with the inflation and expansion, i.e. that universal expansion and contraction are going on simultaneously.
    Conjectured implications are that the Universe is a product of A Single Universal Black Hole with an extremely brief singularity of ALL the gravitons of the universe, which is feasible and possible and mandated because gravitation is a very weak force due to the small size of the gravitons, the primal mass-energy particles of the universe.
    This implies also that when all the mass of the presently expanding universe is collected and stored at very low energy level in black holes, expansion will cease and be replaced with empansion back to THE Single Universal Black Hole.

    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)

    ====================

    Universe Inflation And Expansion

    Inflation on Trial
    Astrophysicists interrogate one of their most successful theories
    http://www.sciencenews.org/view/feature/id/342219/title/Inflation_on_Trial
    Commonsense:
    Inflation and expansion are per Newton.
    Since the Big Bang galactic clusters loose mass at constant rate. Mass, gravitons, continue escaping at constant rate from their Big Bang fragments-clusters thus becoming energy, mass in motion, thus thrusting the clusters. Constant thrust and decreasing galactic clusters weight accelerate the separation of clusters from each other.
    Common sense.
    Dov Henis (comments from 22nd century)
    http://universe-life.com/

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