Saturday, August 20, 2005

Comparison between Feynman and Einstein by Peter Galison

A collection of the letter's of the Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, edited by his daughter, Michelle Feynman, was recently published [1]. Reviewing this book, Peter Galison of the Department of Physics, Harvard University, compares Feynman and Albert Einstein [2].

Galison starts his review by the sentence, "Richard Feynman was a physicist's physicist," and writes about Feynman's contributions in fundamental physics and beyond as well as his public intervention in the analysis of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. Then, he refers to Feynman's fame within and outside the physics community, adding, "Young physicists regularly tack a poster of Feynman above their desks. If there are posters of other Nobel prizewinners on sale, I haven't seen them. [My note: Here is a line break] Except, of course, for Albert Einstein." — Yes, I saw a photo of Feynman even on the desk of a young physicist at Kharkov University in Ukraine, where another famous physicist Lev Landau had worked. —

In a next paragraph, Galison describes about Einstein's iconic status extending far beyond the physics world, and states, "And yet, since the early 1960s, generations of science students held Feynman, not Einstein, as their model and guiding star." — Similarly to other physics students and physicists in earlier days, I had held Einstein as a model and guiding star until I read Feynman's book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" [3] in 1985. I was a latecomer to the community of Feynman fans, though I read the three volumes of The Feynman Lectures on Physics [4] earlier than that and liked the volumes very much. —

Galison compares Feynman and Einstein, writing as follows (numbers are attached by me): (1) Einstein never lost his fascination for philosophy; Feynman found philosophers nothing but a burden. (2) Einstein came to believe that physical reality lay deep in mathematical physics; Feynman never gave up hoping for a physics driven, at bottom, by an almost tactile intuition. (3) Much of Einstein's life found him cast and self-cast as an oracle; Feynman preferred the persona of a fast-draw street-smart kid.

Galison concludes: "Yet beyond these striking differences, both Einstein and Feynman found ways to hold their own ..." — Namely, they were different and similar at the same time. —

Around the middle of his review, Galison quotes Feynman's last letter to his first wife, Arline, written after she died of tuberculosis in June 1945. The letter ends with the words, "P. S. Please excuse me my not mailing this — but I don't know your new address." This letter plainly and movingly conveys Feynman's sadness brought by Arline's death.

References
  1. M. Feynman, ed. with an introduction, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman (Basic Books, 2005).
  2. P. Galison, "Letters from a hero: What made Richard Feynman so much more than a Nobel prizewinning physicist?" Nature, Vol. 436, p. 320 (2005).
  3. R. P. Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character, as told to R. Leighton, ed. by E. Hutchings (W. W. Norton, paperbound 1997; hardbound 1985).
  4. R. P. Feynman, R. B. Leighton and M. Sands, The Feynman Lectures on Physics (Addison Wesley, 1963).

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