The Puzzle Master
December 1, 2015 § Leave a comment
A Preliminary Cofession
This is my reaction to “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman” by James Gleick. Despite Gleick’s valiant effort to present the principles of physics in terms understandable to laymen, I begin this essay with a confession: I found the description of Feynman’s life, his personality, his relationships and the unique characteristics of his life style to be fascinating. But, after reading and re-reading several parts of Gleick’s book , I still d0 not comprehend major portions of his description of the principles of physics.
I do not attribute this failure to any fault of Gleick’s. Since Junior High School I have assiduously avoided education in the fields of math and physical science and, as a result, deprived myself of ability to appreciate the interesting story of the technology that has shaped our culture for the past seventy or eighty years. The field known as quantum electrodynamics has transformed not only our views of the universe of which we are a part, but also the nature of every iota of matter in our planet, including we humans and the other animals who inhabit it.
The Time Frame
Richard Feynman was born in New York in 1918. He died in 1978. 1919 was the year that Einstein’s general theory of relativity was proven: An eclipse of the sun allowed a photographer on earth to establish, just as Einstein had predicted, that a light ray from a distant star was deflected by the sun’s gravitational force to bend slightly as it hurtled toward the earth, thus causing a tiny edge of the emitting star to remain visible on earth instead of being blocked by the sun. Einstein’s incite attracted the attention of talented analysts from around the world and elevated physics to a prominent place in colleges and universities.
Feynman, while he was a public school boy, became interested in radio electronics and began asking his teachers the “why ?” questions that would structure his life. For example, he asked, “Why does a ball in the bed of a wagon roll backward when the wagon is drawn forward?” The response, based on the laws of inertia, did not satisfy him. It described, but did not provide a reason. The ultimate response, “We don’t know” was similarly unsatisfying.
Feynman asked one of his high school teachers, “How do sharp things stay sharp all the time if their atoms are always jiggling?” He got no answer.
Decades later, as a student at MIT, Feynman was still asking the same kinds of questions. He asked, “Why does a mirror seem to invert left and right, but not top and bottom?” “Why are mirrored words backwards, but not upside down?” After baffling his fraternity brothers, he would then explain: “‘Imagine yourself standing before a mirror’, he suggested, ‘with one hand pointing east and the other west. Wave the east hand. The mirror image waves its east hand. Its head is up. Its west hand lies to the west. Its feet are down. Everything’s really all right.’ Feynman said. ‘The problem is on the axis running through the mirror. Your nose and the back of your head are reversed: if your nose points north, your double’s nose points south. The problem now is psychological. We think of our image as another person. We cannot imagine ourselves “squashed” back to front, so we imagine ourselves turned left and right, as if we had walked around a pane of glass to face the other way. It is in this psychological turnabout that left and right are switched. It is the same with the book. If the letters are reversed left and right, it is because we turned the book about a vertical axis to face the mirror. We could just as easily turn the book from bottom to top instead, in which case the letters will appear upside down.'” (p.331)
This obsession with hidden or obscure items and processes sometimes caused problems for Feynman. For example, he delighted in figuring out how to open locks and safes, a skill at which he became adept. During J. Edgar Hoover’s reign at the FBI, Hoover targeted Feynman, claiming he had access to the safes containing classified material related to the U.S. nuclear program and used his access to route copies to the USSR. This nonsense was never proved and Feynman’s coleagues successfully defended him. Nevertheless, Gleick notes that Feynman’s FBI file was over a thousand pages long.
Risking The End of the World to End a War
Between 1940 and 1945, Robert Oppenheimer, the mercurial director of the Manhattan Project, organized a collaborative group of physicists. Their task: to create a nuclear weapon. His team is described in Gleick’s book as “. . . the most eccentric, temperamental, insecure, volatile assortment of thinkers and calculators ever squeezed together in one place.” Feynman was a major component of this collective effort. Oppenheimer recruited him from Princeton, where Feynman, a graduate student, had already distinguished himself as a member of a cadre of young creators of the emerging field of quantum physics.
The race for creating a nuclear bomb had begun in 1940, led by Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe and other physicists. They were aware of a parallel effort by Nazi Germany. The attack on Pearl Horbour December 7, 1941 spiked the effort’s urgency. Separate but coordinated groups were enlisted to work in Chicago, Oak Ridge Tennessee and a New Mexico desert outpost called Los Alamos.
This feverish work culminated at an isolated barren location, the Jornado del Muerto (Journey of Death), at 5:29:45 A.M, a few minutes before dawn on July 16, 1945, when the earth’s first mushroom cloud heralded the advent of its first nuclear explosion. The effort had succeeded. Man, for the first time, gained access to weapons technology capable of destroying the earth as a habitat for human beings.
Nuclear bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki soon thereafter ended World War II and elevated physics to new level in laboratories throughout the world.
The Trajectory of a Genius
Feynman’s Friends and Colleagues
Richard Feynman, to me, seemed to move though his adult life like someone with the appearance of an ordinary person but with mental ability that was not merely greater than his contemporary colleagues. It was different from theirs. Gleick describes multiple instances when Feynman was collaborating with one or more colleagues, seeking a solution to some analytical puzzle. The others laboriously worked with mathematical models and equations, moving step by step toward a solution. At some point, sometimes near the beginning of the process, Feynman would produce the solution based on a technique unrelated to the work done by others.
As I have stated earlier, I was unable to follow Gleick’s description of these episodes. My limited comprehension was: Feynman was able to craft solutions graphically, like pictures, in his brain without working through the mathematical equations otherwise necessary to arrive at the solution. This phenomenon, unsurprisingly, led to conflicts between Feynman and his fellow physicists. These men were, after all, not lacking in talent. Some of them were renown scholars with published research admired by and studied by other respected physicists. This conflict was exaccerbated by the fact that, early in his career, he was significantly younger than those with whom he worked.
Hostility toward him was also stoked by his own brash bluntness in expressing his disagreement with others. Unlike the Corinthians whom St. Paul reproached and mocked, Feynman did not suffer fools gladly. [2 Corinthians 11:19] Finally, however,when one after another of his arguments proved valid, his co-workers’ skepticism gave way to admiration and tolerance for his peculiar personality. This conversion was facilitated by the fact that Feynman’s arguments were always directed toward the reasoning of others; never toward them. He had a sharp wit and was a good companion at a picnic or a party.
As a young man, Feynman was shy with girls. As a teenager in Far Rockaway, New York, he dated girls but had no serious romantic relationship with any of them.
One day, at the beach, he saw Arline Greenbaum and became attracted to her. After he finished public school and entered college, he dated her when he come home on holiday. In his junior year at college, they became engaged. They postponed marriage because he continued his education as a graduate student rather than seeking a job and the ability to support a family.
While Feynman was working on his PhD, Arline contracted tuberculosis. In 1942, despite objections by their parents, they were married. After the ceremony Arline returned to the hospital where she was being treated. She and Feynman had a devoted and romantic relationship, featuring a constant exchange of letters, although they were never able to live together, until her death in 1945. The description of their doomed love reads like Verdi’s libretto account of Alfredo’s love for Violetta in La Traviata, the operatic version of La dame aux Camellias.
In 1952, Feynman married Mary Louise Bell. That marriage was a total failure. Feynman was repeatedly unfaithful and his wife was endlessly critical of his behavior and habits when he was at home. In her divorce petition she complained, among other things, of his lying in bed “doing calculus in his head”. He did not contest the divorce, granted slightly less than four years after their marriage.
He married Gwyneth Howarth February 24, 1960. She was from Great Britain. He arranged for her to immigrate to America to become his housemaid. After she arrived and moved into his home, they were married. They had a son and a daughter. Their marriage ended February 15, 1988, when Feynman died. Either because of Ms. Howarth’s tolerance or Feynman’s late developing maturity, or both, their marriage was a successful one.
Feynman in Wonderland
There seems to be recurring time lag sequence between fantasy fiction and scientific reality. Apple has produced Dick Tracy’s wrist radio. Flash Gordon’s interplanetary tales seem less astounding after a depot for rocket launches was established near Cape Canaveral in Florida. Even Zeus’s thunderbolts have become weapons wielded by laser armed cops. Modern medical research now involves consideration of ethical issues when human life is created in a petri dish or a test tube. The monster crafted by Dr. Frankenstein, in other words, is no longer the fantasy of a novelist. It is a problem, and possible future project, for modern medicine.
I thought about these ideas as I read about quantum physics. The nucleus of an atom is the field and location where this subject is studied. It cannot be magnified to a size assessable to a human eye. Its contents can leave trails on photographic plates that can be studied, but no one has ever seen a proton, an electron, a neutrino, a positron, a quark, a meson or any other particle residing in this nucleus. Yet a few generations of scientists have acquired knowledge about atomic nuclei that have enabled them to facilitate much of our modern technology.
How? The best description I have seen of the process is this: It is like studying the inner workings of a fine watch without being able to open the case. This kind of study is now essential to every field of science. Why? Here is Feynman’s answer: “If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms —little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.” (pp. 358-359)
James Gleick has described the combined efforts of the small army of physicists who have devoted their talent and endless hours of creative research to describing and learning how to manipulate and create new substances and forms of energy in ways that have both enhanced and threatened our lives. Richard Feynman was a leader in every phase of this process during his lifetime. Gleick’s book has a bibliography of Feynman’s published books and articles. It is six pages of closely spaced micro type. One of his books is entitled, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”
Feynman won many prestigious awards including, in 1965, the Nobel Prize for “. . . fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics with deep ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles.” He shared the prize with Schwinger and Tomonaga.
I was not able to comprehend much of Gleick’s description of the processes that enabled the exploration that disclosed our knowledge of an atomic nucleus. I did understand that studying the behavior of various substances at different temperatures was part of the process. Tubes several miles long in which precisely controlled particles could be propelled at other particles enable observers to intuit information about the nuclei of the atoms involved.
Because the particles inside the nuclei are always in motion, the math involved in studying them involves calculating their velocity and path based on very complicated probability equations, the results of which are then compared with the observable behavior of the matter being studied. When the math becomes predictive of the behavior, it is accepted as accurately describing some aspect of the nucleus being studied. Variables are, as earlier noted, temperature , the nature of the physical substance in which the nuclei are located and the size of the environment in which the observation is made.
Some of the conclusions that have been reached through these methods do not conform to our common sense observations. For example, one conclusion that seems to have been accepted is that one of the particles whirling around in the nucleus, at some point, whirls backward in time. This is an acceptable conclusion, as I understand it, because the particles within the nuclei are moving at or near the speed of light and, at those speeds, space and time relationships change.
It took me some time to absorb this latter information. It seems that our mundane perception of the world is radically different from the reality of the atoms of which our world is constructed and this is true whether or not it “makes sense”. This is the reason that the brain tracks I acquired in law school did not equip me to understand physics.
The NASA Disaster
July 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger was launched into space at Cape Canaveral Florida. Seventy-one seconds later it exploded and its seven passengers were killed. President Reagan appointed a committee to investigate and discover the reason for the tragedy. Feynman was invited to participate.
Feynman was sixty-eight years old, suffering from terminal cancer. He responded to the request knowing that he had a short time to live. He began by educating himself about the history and engineering involved in the space program and the construction of Challenger. It finally became clear that the source of the explosion was the seals holding the sections of the rocket boosters together. The seals were secured with arrangements of pins inserted unto the metal coverings through rubber washers, called O-rings.
The night before the launch, the weather at Cape Canaveral was below freezing and ice collected around the shuttle. The launch was delayed briefly but the engineers determined that the temperature had moderated sufficiently to allow a safe launch.
Representatives of the companies who were involved in the construction and launching of the shuttle testified at hearings of the investigating committee. They used terms like “anomaly” to describe the explosion. Lawrence Mulloy, project manager for solid rockets, testified that the O-rings were capable of maintaining a safe seal at termperatures ranging from minus 30 to 500 degrees Fahrenheit.
Feynman, took a taxi and found a hardware store. He bought some rubber washers the same size and material as the O-rings. He also bought a pair of pliers. He conducted his own test, using these items. Based on his findings, he returned to the committee hearing and questioned project manager Mulloy. Here is a quote from the transcript.
“Chairman Rogers: Dr. Feynman has one or two comments he would like to make. Dr. Feynman.
Dr. Feynman: This is a comment for Mulloy. I took this stuff that I got out of your seal and I put it in ice water, and I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for awhile and then undo it it doesn’t stretch back. It stays the same dimension. In other words, for a few seconds at least and more seconds than that, there is no resiliance in this particular material when it is at a temperature of 32 degrees.
I believe that has some significance for our problem.”
This exchange occurred one week after Feynman had arrived in Washington, where the investigation was being conducted. The investigation continued for four months, but Feynman had identified the cause of the disaster with a simple demonstration.
A Personal Speculation
In this essay I have repeatedly confessed my inability to comprehend quantum physics. I did, however, enjoy reading this book. although it took more time than I anticipated. It caused me to reconsider some ideas that I have pondered most of my adult life. It seems obvious that, in some ways, the reality we perceive is created in our brains. I don’t mean that we are living in a dream. Nor do I mean that, on a hot day, my brain can create a glass of cold lemonade. Contrary to what some philosophers have argued, I believe that reality is “really there” ; that it is not an illusion. That is different from the question of our perception of reality.
Gestalt theory teaches that our minds seek to find patterns, that is, some degree of regularity, from chaos. I assume that, like the rest of our bodies, our minds are the result of thousands of years of evolution. And that includes the types of patterns our minds add or construct to effect some kind of order to our perceptions.
Carl Jung taught that, contrary to Freud’s theory, our minds include not only a conscious and a subconscious component, but also a collective unconscious. He studied mythology across cultures and found unmistakable similarities in the stories our prehistoric ancestors told themselves and passed along to us – similarities that could not be explained by person to person communication. In other words, Jung taught that, just as our brains arrive with the necessary wiring to operate our bodies, they also arrive with the results of thousands of years of story telling in ancient cultures; and there were commonalities in those stories regardless of the absence of actual interactions between those cultures.
He proposed four categories of these archetypes: The Shadow (the part of our nature we keep hidden); the Animus (the male part of our nature); the Anima (the female part of our nature) and the Self (the combined mixture of the other categories determining who we, as individuals, are or become).
Within these categories, Jung identified a large number of personalities with names like “Wise Woman”, “The Trickster”, “Magician”. He found these as recurring figures in the myths he studied.
A a psychiatrist named Julian Jaynes proposed a different, but related set of ideas based on Jung’s collective unconscious theory. Jaynes wrote a book, “The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind” in which he argued that our brains became separated into “left brain” and “right brain” only a few thousand years ago. He claimed that the Greeks and Romans who wrote about a panoply of gods and goddesses who interacted with them were not writing fiction. He claimed their brains had not yet separated in right and left parts; one part perceiving logic and the other part capable of conceiving events and characters created by imagination. That is, they were writing about what, to them, were actual events and interactions between humans and gods and goddesses.
A significant number of people, including mental health professionals, agree with Jaynes. He is also regarded as a crackpot by others. I am skeptical. I have sampled, but not actually absorbed his book. His ideas are interesting, whether or not they’re true.
Now, why am I including this speculation in this essay about physics? Well, when I read about scientists creating an entire field of learning based on the activities of particles no one has ever seen, using their mental ability to arrive at precise descriptions of those particles and precise predictions of their behavior, it seemed to me to be a “quantum leap” (excuse this frivolity) between the reasoning of math-based science and the speculations of psychology and philosophy.
And, finally, I am not alone in this frame of mind. A physicist, Fritjof Capra has written a very interesting book, “The Tao of Physics” [“Tao” is pronounced “Dow”]. He compares quantum physics to Taoism, a Chinese religion that preceded and is related to Buddhism.
I became an admirer of Taoism in the late 50’s. It regards human activity as a shifting balance between Yang and Yin, seeking harmony and valuing peace instead of discord. One text related to Taoism is the I Ching [pronounced Eee Jing]. The I Ching is a kind of guide in which a sage offers advice about everything based on the random results of groups of sticks [originally yarrow sticks – I use kitchen matches] separated into successively smaller bunches until a number of sticks remain which identify specific paragraphs in the book. Those paragraphs disclose the Sage’s advice.
Capra does not use the I Ching in his book but Carl Jung wrote a preface for the edition of the English language version of the I Ching I use.
If you have accompanied me this far, you have probably concluded I am a kookoo bird, an old lawyer who spent his life engaged in combat in court rooms and political conventions, while dabbling in oriental philosophy teaching harmony and peace. I know this is inconsistent. I also cannot blame it on old age because it began when I was in my 20’s. I have no excuse.