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Fantastic Feynman

In a previous post (titled “Amazing Grace”, from 2015-10-06) I discussed how I thought early computer pioneer, Grace Hopper, was a pretty cool character and how I admired both her contribution to computing and her attitude. Well Hopper might have been pretty cool but no one (well, maybe Einstein and a small number of others) could be in the same league as another hero of mine, Richard Feynman.

I do have to say that I usually avoid hero worship because any contribution a single person makes is always based on the combined work on those who came before, plus it seems that society often reaches a stage where a particular scientific, technological, or social advance seems almost inevitable and it is just a matter of time before someone makes it (possibly more about this in a later blog post).

But on the other hand there are people who at least speed up this inevitable progress and steer things in the right direction. Also these people often have interesting and quirky personalities which for me makes them far more worthy of my admiration.

So firstly, who was Richard Feynman and what did he do? Well, he was an American theoretical physicists, 1918 to 1988, who made many significant contributions to quantum physics. Maybe his biggest contribution was the subject he won the Nobel Prize for: major improvements in the theory of quantum electrodynamics.

I have a rough idea what the theory is about but it might be best if I quote Wikipedia: “In essence, it describes how light and matter interact and is the first theory where full agreement between quantum mechanics and special relativity is achieved. QED mathematically describes all phenomena involving electrically charged particles interacting by means of exchange of photons and represents the quantum counterpart of classical electromagnetism giving a complete account of matter and light interaction.”

OK, at this point I delayed the writing of this post because I realised I didn’t understand QED very well at all. I went back to revise what I knew (not a lot) and even watched a lecture by Feynman done in New Zealand when he was visiting here back in 1979. Part 1 (there are 4 parts) of that lecture series runs for 1 hour and 17 minutes and is fairly straightforward. Feynman is a good lecturer too and so far things are fairly easy to follow. So I think I’m starting to get a better idea what QED is really about.

Part 2 is 1 hour and 37 minutes, so that will be next. But I am also re-reading a book (in fact listening to an audio book) about Feynman called “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” which is a series of short stories about various incidents in his life. Many of these anecdotes have nothing to do with physics but still illustrate his attitude to life. For example, the incident the title of the book refers to the response of a particularly pompous person at a Princeton afternoon tea when he was asked whether he preferred lemon or milk with this tea and, due to his ignorance of social protocols, replied “both”.

When I figure out in a bit more detail what QED is about I might write a post about it but until then I might just list a few Feynman quotes and incidents and comment on them.

Perhaps his most famous quote, and one which few people would disagree with: “I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.”

Yes, I’m afraid that what happens at the quantum level is so different from what happens at the level of our usual experiences that there is no way that we can really make sense of it. That doesn’t mean that quantum theory isn’t useful because it is very useful, and very accurate. But is it true? Who knows. In fact, who knows what that even means.

Now some quotes about science in general: “Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.” and “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

We should all accept that occasionally scientists do fool themselves and do reach a point where they have too much attachment to a particular theory. But as evidence accumulates things do change. For example, basically no scientist thinks the Earth is the center of the Universe or that the Big Bang didn’t happen any more. Compare that with a group like religious fundamentalists where large numbers still believe far more absurd ideas. Why? Because science is set to make it difficult for scientists to fool themselves but religion requires it.

And while we are on the subject of religion, he said: “God was always invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now, when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you’re taking away from God; you don’t need him anymore.” and “I call myself an atheist. Agnostic for me would be trying to weasel out and sound a little nicer than I am about this.”

God is a human invention, there is no reasonable doubt about that, but saying that the reason for that invention is to explain mystery is only part of the story. As real explanations for various phenomena are found a god become less necessary – this is the classic “god of the gaps” phenomenon – but gods also serve other purposes, such as giving authority to moral and social rules, acting as a symbol bonding a group, and others. So Feynman is oversimplifying the phenomenon a bit here.

As far as the distinction between agnostic and atheist is concerned, I think it is often pointless and confusing. Most agnostics seem to be atheists but just want to appear a little bit less confrontational about it. But if you define atheism as having an absolute belief in the non-existence of god then most non-believers (like myself) wouldn’t be atheists because we just think there is no good evidence for a god existing rather than being totally confident of his non-existence.

Feynman was on a panel investigating the Challenger shuttle disaster. Here’s part of his findings on the subject: “If we are to replace standard numerical probability usage with engineering judgment, why do we find such an enormous disparity between the management estimate and the judgment of the engineers? It would appear that, for whatever purpose, be it for internal or external consumption, the management of NASA exaggerates the reliability of its product, to the point of fantasy.”

Yes, he’s identified the biggest problem with the modern Western world: management. Their insistence on ignoring facts and perpetuating whatever lies more senior managers and politicians want to hear instead of being honest is a constant problem.

And they don’t like it when their incompetence and corruption is pointed out. For example, according to a senior bureaucrat in the Challenger investigation panel: “Feynman is becoming a real pain in the ass.”

Well yeah, sure. Any person worthy of being called honest, creative, and brilliant is likely to be like that. If you’re not a pain in the ass to those in power then you’re doing something wrong!

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