Thursday, May 19, 2016

Richard Feynman -- physics genius

Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an American theoretical physicist known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics for which he proposed the parton model. For his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman, jointly with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. He developed a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions governing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams. During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world. In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal Physics World he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time.

                                                                  Richard Feynman 

He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and became known to a wide public in the 1980s as a member of the Rogers Commission, the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. In addition to his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing, and introducing the concept of nanotechnology. He held the Richard C. Tolman professorship in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology.

Feynman was a keen popularizer of physics through both books and lectures, including a 1959 talk on top-down nanotechnology called There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom, and the three-volume publication of his undergraduate lectures, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman also became known through his semi-autobiographical books Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? and books written about him, such as Tuva or Bust! and Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick.

Caltech Years

Feynman did significant work while at Caltech, including research in:

  • Quantum electrodynamics. The theory for which Feynman won his Nobel Prize is known for its accurate predictions. This theory was begun in the earlier years during Feynman's work at Princeton as a graduate student and continued while he was at Cornell. This work consisted of two distinct formulations. The first is his path integral formulation, and the second is the formulation of Feynman diagrams. Both formulations contained his sum over histories method in which every possible path from one state to the next is considered, the final path being a sum over the possibilities (also referred to as sum-over-paths). For several years he lectured to students at Caltech on his path integral formulation of quantum theory. The second formulation of quantum electrodynamics (using Feynman diagrams) was specifically mentioned by the Nobel committee. The logical connection with the path integral formulation is interesting. Feynman did not prove that the rules for his diagrams followed mathematically from the path integral formulation. Some special cases were later proved by other people, but only in the real case, so the proofs do not work when spin is involved. The second formulation should be thought of as starting anew, but guided by the intuitive insight provided by the first formulation. Freeman Dyson published a paper in 1949, which added new rules to Feynman's that told how to implement renormalization. Students everywhere learned and used the powerful new tool that Feynman had created. Eventually computer programs were written to compute Feynman diagrams, providing a tool of unprecedented power. It is possible to write such programs because the Feynman diagrams constitute a formal language with a grammar. Marc Kac provided the formal proofs of the summation under history, showing that the parabolic partial differential equation can be re-expressed as a sum under different histories (that is, an expectation operator), what is now known as the Feynman–Kac formula, the use of which extends beyond physics to many applications of stochastic processes.
  • Physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, where helium seems to display a complete lack of viscosity when flowing. Feynman provided a quantum-mechanical explanation for the Soviet physicist Lev D. Landau's theory of superfluidity. Applying the Schrödinger equation to the question showed that the superfluid was displaying quantum mechanical behavior observable on a macroscopic scale. This helped with the problem of superconductivity but the solution eluded Feynman. It was solved with the BCS theory of superconductivity, proposed by John Bardeen, Leon Neil Cooper, and John Robert Schrieffer.
  • A model of weak decay, which showed that the current coupling in the process is a combination of vector and axial currents (an example of weak decay is the decay of a neutron into an electron, a proton, and an anti-neutrino). Although E. C. George Sudarshan and Robert Marshak developed the theory nearly simultaneously, Feynman's collaboration with Murray Gell-Mann was seen as seminal because the weak interaction was neatly described by the vector and axial currents. It thus combined the 1933 beta decay theory of Enrico Fermi with an explanation of parity violation.

He also developed Feynman diagrams, a bookkeeping device that helps in conceptualizing and calculating interactions between particles in spacetime, including the interactions between electrons and their antimatter counterparts, positrons. This device allowed him, and later others, to approach time reversibility and other fundamental processes. Feynman's mental picture for these diagrams started with the hard sphere approximation, and the interactions could be thought of as collisions at first. It was not until decades later that physicists thought of analyzing the nodes of the Feynman diagrams more closely. Feynman painted Feynman diagrams on the exterior of his van.

From his diagrams of a small number of particles interacting in spacetime, Feynman could then model all of physics in terms of the spins of those particles and the range of coupling of the fundamental force.  Feynman attempted an explanation of the strong interactions governing nucleons scattering called the parton model. The parton model emerged as a complement to the quark model developed by his Caltech colleague Murray Gell-Mann. The relationship between the two models was murky; Gell-Mann referred to Feynman's partons derisively as "put-ons". In the mid-1960s, physicists believed that quarks were just a bookkeeping device for symmetry numbers, not real particles, as the statistics of the Omega-minus particle, if it were interpreted as three identical strange quarks bound together, seemed impossible if quarks were real. The Stanford linear accelerator deep inelastic scattering experiments of the late 1960s showed, analogously to Ernest Rutherford's experiment of scattering alpha particles on gold nuclei in 1911, that nucleons (protons and neutrons) contained point-like particles that scattered electrons. It was natural to identify these with quarks, but Feynman's parton model attempted to interpret the experimental data in a way that did not introduce additional hypotheses. For example, the data showed that some 45% of the energy momentum was carried by electrically-neutral particles in the nucleon. These electrically-neutral particles are now seen to be the gluons that carry the forces between the quarks and carry also the three-valued color quantum number that solves the Omega-minus problem. Feynman did not dispute the quark model; for example, when the fifth quark was discovered in 1977, Feynman immediately pointed out to his students that the discovery implied the existence of a sixth quark, which was discovered in the decade after his death.

After the success of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman turned to quantum gravity. By analogy with the photon, which has spin 1, he investigated the consequences of a free massless spin 2 field, and derived the Einstein field equation of general relativity, but little more.  The computational device that Feynman discovered then for gravity, "ghosts", which are "particles" in the interior of his diagrams that have the "wrong" connection between spin and statistics, have proved invaluable in explaining the quantum particle behavior of the Yang-Mills theories, for example, QCD and the electro-weak theory.

Feynman was elected a Foreign Member of the Royal Society (ForMemRS) in 1965. At this time in the early 1960s, Feynman exhausted himself by working on multiple major projects at the same time, including a request, while at Caltech, to "spruce up" the teaching of undergraduates. After three years devoted to the task, he produced a series of lectures that eventually became The Feynman Lectures on Physics. He wanted a picture of a drumhead sprinkled with powder to show the modes of vibration at the beginning of the book. Concerned over the connections to drugs and rock and roll that could be made from the image, the publishers changed the cover to plain red, though they included a picture of him playing drums in the foreword. The Feynman Lectures on Physics occupied two physicists, Robert B. Leighton and Matthew Sands, as part-time co-authors for several years. Even though the books were not adopted by most universities as textbooks, they continue to sell well because they provide a deep understanding of physics. Many of his lectures and miscellaneous talks were turned into other books, including The Character of Physical Law, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter, Statistical Mechanics, Lectures on Gravitation, and the Feynman Lectures on Computation.

Feynman's students competed keenly for his attention; he was once awakened when a student solved a problem and dropped it in his mailbox; glimpsing the student sneaking across his lawn, he could not go back to sleep, and he read the student's solution. The next morning his breakfast was interrupted by another triumphant student, but Feynman informed him that he was too late.

Partly as a way to bring publicity to progress in physics, Feynman offered $1,000 prizes for two of his challenges in nanotechnology; one was claimed by William McLellan and the other by Tom Newman.  He was also one of the first scientists to conceive the possibility of quantum computers.

In 1974, Feynman delivered the Caltech commencement address on the topic of cargo cult science, which has the semblance of science, but is only pseudoscience due to a lack of "a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty" on the part of the scientist. He instructed the graduating class that "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you've not fooled yourself, it's easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that."

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