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The Feynman Variations

By Hamish Johnston


The BBC has a wealth of archive material at its disposal – everything from Led Zeppelin performances to television programmes featuring the late physicist Richard Feynman.

The latter was featured earlier this week on the BBC Radio 4 show The Archive Hour, presented by particle physicist and media darling Brian Cox.

“As curious as he was clever”, is how Cox describes Feynman. In an archive recording, Hans Bethe calls Feynman “a magician”.

Feynman (1919–1988) is widely celebrated as the greatest physicist of his generation – the first generation after the founding of quantum mechanics.

Heisenberg, Shrödinger and Dirac were a tough act to follow, but Feynman did so with remarkable flair. He developed the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, shared the 1965 Nobel prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics, and brought us Feynman diagrams.

Feynman was also a keen teacher and populizer of physics, which is what much of the BBC programme focuses on. It includes contributions from Steven Weinberg, Freeman Dyson and the filmmaker Christopher Sykes. In the 1980s, Sykes made a series of television programmes with Feynman called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out and Fun to Imagine, which you can also watch on the BBC website .

A fascinating insight into how Feynman explains science can be had from an exchange in which Sykes asks Feynman a simple question about why magnets repel each other. Feynman admits that there is no simple way of explaining why and trying to simplify the problem would do the questioner no service.

But the highlight of the programme is listening to Feynman speaking enthusiastically in his “Noo Yawk” accent about why he is curious about science – sounding more like a Borscht Belt comedian than one of the 20th century’s greatest thinkers.

There were no mother-in-law jokes, but Feynman did tell a funny story about his childhood summers in the Catskills.

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  1. Ronald Schleyer

    Feynman was a very florid and impetuous personality according to the admissions of his colleagues and as revealed in the interesting feature-length movie made of his life (‘Infinity’). However, he said some regrettable things about physics that should not be praised even posthumously, such as his remark in ‘Q.E.D.’ that Nature, as revealed by the behavior of light in the theory of quantum electrodynamics, is simply absurd.
    We must in fact denounce that statement by Feynman as a stupid expression, in which without permission of the rest of us he accepts defeat in comprehending the deep reasons of things in the realm of physics. Certainly in this and in the story BBC tells here, that he simply couldn’t explain magnetism to fellow humans (and he really was not able to!), lie clues that Feynman was merely facile and not great, certainly not the master of the language of physical thought that Heisenberg was.
    In the end, Feynman and two others got a Nobel Prize for inventing a widely used fudge factor (“renormalization”), which Dirac, for example, denounced in the most pejorative terms as something modern physics should be ashamed of. He was called a self-adoring clown by his chief colleague at Caltech. And finally, unlike Oppenheimer, he also expressed no shame for his quite significant part in the mass murder by firestorm and radiation of hundreds of thousands of innocent Japanese civilians during World War II.
    Most physicists are like Feynman–vaporous and childish inside, very insecure, impetuous, and ignorantly contemptuous of what they see as the “imprecision” of ordinary language. With rare exception, especially the American variety, they are spiritual barbarians, as anyone who seriously reads them for long will discover. Almost to a man (Heisenberg excepted, Feynman included) they are atheists, another hugely damning circumstance, since it ruins their legacy as teachers and leads others into the same dark place, truly a “black hole” of fearsome character.

  2. Ted McCabe

    Re: Ronald Schleyer,
    1) “Absurd” as defined in my dictionary, “We call something absurd when it is utterly inconsistent with what common sense or experience tell us”. It is thus patently obvious that Feynman’s choice of word is dead on. A more succinct description would be hard found,
    2) Your comment regarding WWII is more telling of your own views than anything about Feynman’s,
    3) You insult Feynman with your final paragraph’s rhetoric and bring your own religious views into a discussion of science – both unnecessary and insulting to any critical thinker.
    What beef have you against Feynman that you make such an effort to insult him?

  3. John Duffield

    Nobody’s perfect, but nevertheless Feynman was an inspirational to me and no doubt many others. Yes, he was known as “The Great Explainer”, and yes, there is a certain irony in his being unable to explain something as simple as magnetism. But he was right on the mark with “the first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool”. Please don’t berate him for the atomic, bomb, because that was the lesser of two evils. See for potential casualties resulting from a land invasion of Japan. And please don’t criticize people for their religious beliefs, or the lack thereof. Live and let live.

  4. Brian Kenny

    Thanks Hamish for “The Archive Hour” links to the BBC. Most people don’t have direct access to live BBC programs.
    Thanks also for the links to “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out and Fun to Imagine”, interviews with Feynman. I’ve already listened to the one about why rubber bands stretch.
    I’ll recommend them to my students as an example of how a great scientists thinks.

  5. Ronald – to describe being of an atheist point of view as a “hugely damning circumstance” that ruins a persons legacy as a teacher rather inclines one to ignore the remainder of your little diatribe.

  6. Hamish Johnston

    No worries Brian.
    Are you outside the UK? If so, I’m curious to know how much BBC video material you can access?
    My understanding is that you can’t watch i-Player programmes, is that correct?
    It seems that you can however, watch video archive material.

  7. croghan27

    Damn! Damn! Damn!
    There are many good things available from the BBC, as you mention, Hamish …. I got to hear John Le Carre reading from some of his books every night for months … but
    That particular R. Feynman recording is apparently a no! no! A shame.

  8. surajjena

    A superior think to feynman calculus is essence to decoration of mathmusing qed so far absolutely accuracy probability to chance out for reapply into quantum physics in a form of THE FEYNMAN. DIAGRAM

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