Sunday, October 02, 2005

Freeman Dyson and Richard Feynman

Freeman Dyson is a physicist who also writes gracefully, a rare beast. I would rather be Freeman Dyson than Albert Einstein or Isaac Newton, I think.

(Aside: I am reading Neal Stephenson's Baroque Cycle right now; Ken got me the first one for my birthday. It makes being Isaac Newton seem very unappealing indeed. That link goes to a picture of the longhand manuscript.)

Via Not Even Wrong, I see that Freeman Dyson has written an article about Richard Feynman, in the guise of a review of a new collection of his letters.

Book reviews aren't usually quite as long, and are rarely so touching. This is the tribute of one great man to another, honest admiration, with no hint of envy or self-service. It is full of insight.

"Great scientists come in two varieties, which Isaiah Berlin, quoting the seventh-century-BC poet Archilochus, called foxes and hedgehogs. Foxes know many tricks, hedgehogs only one. Foxes are interested in everything, and move easily from one problem to another. Hedgehogs are interested only in a few problems which they consider fundamental, and stick with the same problems for years or decades. Most of the great discoveries are made by hedgehogs, most of the little discoveries by foxes. Science needs both hedgehogs and foxes for its healthy growth, hedgehogs to dig deep into the nature of things, foxes to explore the complicated details of our marvelous universe. Albert Einstein was a hedgehog; Richard Feynman was a fox."

I like that. I am a follower of the foxes, myself.

Dyson gives a brief summary of the important role of Feynman diagrams in modern physics, of the textbooks and popularizations that are really just edited transcriptions of his lectures, because he didn't like to write.

He has an anecdote that illustrates: "After Feynman's work on the diagrams was done, a year went by before it was published. He was willing and eager to share his ideas in conversation with anyone who would listen, but he found the job of writing a formal paper distasteful and postponed it as long as he could. His seminal paper, "Space-Time Approach to Quantum Electrodynamics,"[4] might never have been written if he had not gone to Pittsburgh to stay for a few days with his friends Bert and Mulaika Corben. While he was in the Corbens' house, they urged him to sit down and write the paper, and he made all kinds of excuses to avoid doing it. Mulaika, who was a liberated woman with a forceful personality, decided that drastic measures were needed. She was one of the few people who could stand up to Feynman in a contest of wills. She locked him in his room and refused to let him out until the paper was finished. That is the story that Mulaika told me afterward. Like other Feynman stories, it may have been embellished in the telling, but to anyone who knew both Mulaika and Feynman it has the ring of truth."

This is the Feynman his fans already know. But "In spite of his pretense of being illiterate, the letters are written in lucid and grammatical English. They rarely mention his work as a creative scientist. They say nothing about his current research. In these letters we see Feynman as a teacher. He spent much of his life teaching, and he threw himself into teaching as passionately as he threw himself into research. He wrote these letters because he wanted to help anyone who sincerely tried to understand. The letters that he preferred to answer were those which posed problems that he could explain in simple language. The problems were usually elementary, and Feynman's answers were pitched at a level that his correspondent could understand. He was not trying to be clever. His purpose was to be clear. Every one of the letters is personal. He responded to people's personal needs as well as to their questions."

I could quote the whole article here, with its wealth of Feynman stories which were mostly new to me, even though I've read all the collections of Feynman stories I can find, but it's probably easier if you just read it yourself. They depict a more sensetive, kind, generous man than I imagined before. Dyson was Feynman's friend, as well as his admirer.

I'll get the book too, eventually, but I wish I could read it over Freeman Dyson's shoulder.


Anonymous said...

You frickin' foxes drive us hedgehogs nuts!!

Corinne said...

I love Feynman! Us humble Classicists need someone to make physics come alive, and his transcribed letters and stories have done just that for me.

Mary said...

Probably nothing would make Feynman happier than to know that he did that, and is still doing it after his death.

Ashi said...

Actually I don't think much of Einstein. Take Planck, Boltzmann, and Maxwell, and there you've got some intelligence;)