Friday, August 22, 2014

Feynman 4: Womanizing Genius

On to chapter 8 of Quantum Man, a biography of Richard Feynman. I only was able to slip in one chapter this week.

So far:
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.


Martin LaBar said...

Whoa! From Feynman to Biblical interpretation, in a single post.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Just had a conversation today about the Wesleyan/Calvin dispute about "loosing one's salvation". Wesleyans "breech the gap" between theological dependence and self-responsibility (choice). As human develop, they come to see that theologizing can leave some grave gaps that can't be defended, without either compromising some aspect about God's nature (as understood by Christian theology/the Church). What becomes of those that cannot live with the incongruence is leaving "the faith", or seeking an alternative, such as "open Theism". I think it more "responsible" to chose leaving "the faith", to ascertain one's reasonable choices for oneself.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

I forgot that some Wesleyans believe in the "Moral Government" view of atonement. God being the "vision" of a "disciple". Since Wesleyans are identified with the Christian faith, sanctification means making humans into "Christ's" image. Doesn't that mean that there should be as many kinds/types of "little christs" as there are different opinions among scholars about who/what christ is/did as well as what he meant?

There isn't consensus among scholars, about the details, and, too, personal persuasion/conviction is just one's own human desires or experiences projected upon "theology". Social conditioning has a lot to do with what and how we think about things.

Yet, the Christian teaching about "making disciples" and "bringing in" God's Kingdom is what evagelicals believe they are called to to "finish the work" of Christ. Isn't that a little presumptuous? It is at least a theological projection.

I think in today's political climate, Christians think themselves the "saviors of mankind", or useful political pawns for ends that are naive and idealistic. Yet, if any suggestion that America should not open her borders, or that some people are terrorists and a threat to our
Republic, then, Christians will be shamed by politicians.

It is normal for humans to want to gain power over others, some do it with spirituality, while others do it with covert or overt power plays.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Power is a "fact of life", which must be used discriminately....that is why our Government had checks and balance to limit power. The problem today is that power has been used collaboratively, meaning that there are those "close to power" that have priviledges that influence the way things "work out" for the average American. And the way thing are working out for the average American is discouraging. But, if those in power can maintain and expand their power by limiting information, access, and accountability, then we should not be surprised to see the "dependent class", as well a poverty increase.