On to chapter 8 of Quantum Man, a biography of Richard Feynman. I only was able to slip in one chapter this week.
Chapters 1-2: High school, MIT, and Princeton
Chapters 3-5: The Path to a Doctorate
Chapters 6-7: Theorizing the Bomb
One of the most disturbing features of Richard Feynman's life was the way he began to use women after his wife died. He became a notorious womanizer. You hear of professors in the late twentieth century who used the charm of their genius to entice grad students. Thankfully, those days are mostly over, I hope. The increased attention to sexual harassment and sexual ethics in the workplace is something to be thankful for. Christians who scoff at this sort of thing with the label, "political correctness," have no idea how unchristian they are being.
There are some more innocuous stories of Feynman's increasing disregard for the rules of society. He seems to have become a real Cynic, in the ancient sense. One I found particularly entertaining is how he would sometimes sneak into Los Alamos--the high security place where they were building the first atomic bomb. Then he would leave by the front gate with no record of him ever coming in.
He was flamboyant. He loved the Feynman legends that arose about him. He was a showman. Another stunt was when he intentionally convinced several military psychologists that he was mentally unfit.
The physics of this chapter deals with the some eighteen years between Dirac's breakthrough in which he formulated a relativistic version of Schrodinger's wave equation and a conference on Shelter Island off of Long Island, New York in June of 1947. I. I. Rabi described these years as "the most sterile of the century" (119).
The antiparticle version of the electron--the positron, effectively an electron with a positive charge--was predicted by Dirac's equation and found in 1932. But it gave rise to an even greater pool of infinite occurrences, for there was the possibility in QED, Quantum Electrodynamics, that a photon would momentarily split into an electron-positron pair, only to return to a photon. These sorts of possibilities, occurring seemingly randomly, were part of the new quantum reality.
Most of the calculations of the atom in this period seemed to give nonsensical answers that went to infinity. What the theoreticians seemed to need at this time was some hint from experimental data. Krauss notes that Willis Lamb stepped into this void, "one of the last of a breed of physicists who were equally adept in the laboratory and performing calculations" (119).
In 1946 Lamb found a way to measure the spectrum of the hydrogen atom more finely than had ever been done before. These results were concrete, not some theoretical infinite. He presented them on Shelter Island at a conference called, "Conference on the Foundations of Quantum Theory," a conference Feynman would call the most important one he ever attended. Wheeler, Oppenheimer, Bethe, another young physicist superstar named Julian Schwinger--they were all there.
Lamb presented his results. Bethe was so excited he fixed some of the existing equations on the train on his way to his mother's in upstate New york after the conference. He called Feynman immediately. The race was now on to move forward with quantum theory.
Feynman's look at total paths of particles would play a key role. Relativistic problem enter in when you get to talking about the specific time of different particles, since different objects in motion potentially have different time frames. By looking at the overall energy sums and paths, Feynman had a potential way around the problem.
Let me close with a theological aside. One of the reasons there are so many different interpretations of the Bible and so many different theologies is that there isn't always "experimental data" to ground it. Much of individual theologizing and interpretation is, extensively, unbridled speculation. Indirectly, of course, we as interpreters and theorizers of religion are grounded by our concrete circumstances and the cultures in which we are embedded.
Most of us don't realize that these are as powerful drivers of our interpretations and thoughts as the Bible or God--I would say far more influential, actually. We like to think we are speaking for God or proclaiming the Word of God, but much of it is just self-therapy, giving expression to our inner desires and conflicts.
This is why I long to know the original meaning of the Bible, the real meaning it had in its original times and places. History is cold and uncaring. It is a more or less scientific inquiry. It is the most likely meaning we can suggest given the known literary and historical context.
It is not always certain. In fact it is far less certain than many of us Bible scholars like to think. But, at the same time, it at least eliminates quickly a great mass of things thought and said about the Bible within Christendom. It is a kind of experimental grounding to interpretation and thus gives a tangible grounding to theology.