Short works

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Books : reviews

Richard P. Feynman.
The Character of Physical Law.

(read but not reviewed)

The 1964 Messenger Lectures, Cornell University

It always bothers me that, according to the laws as we understand them today, it takes a computing machine an infinite number of logical operations to figure out what goes on in no matter how tiny a region of space, and no matter how tiny a region of time. How can all that be going on in that tiny space? Why should it take an infinite amount of logic to figure out what one tiny piece of space/time is going to do? So I have often made the hypothesis that ultimately physics will not require a mathematical statement, that in the end the machinery will be revealed, and the laws will turn out to be simple, like the chequer board with all its apparent complexities.

-- pp57-58, Chapter 2, "The Relation of Mathematics to Physics"

There was a time when the newspapers said that only twelve men understood the theory of relativity. I do not believe that there ever was such a time. There might have been a time when only one man did, because he was the only guy who caught on, before he wrote his paper. But after people read the paper a lot of people understood the theory of relativity in some way or other, certainly more than twelve. On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

-- p129, Chapter 6, "Probability and Uncertainty"

Richard P. Feynman, Steven Weinberg, eds.
Elementary Particles and the Laws of Physics: the 1986 Dirac Memorial Lectures.
CUP. 1987


Richard P. Feynman. The reason for antiparticles. 1987
Steven Weinberg. Towards the final laws of physics. 1987

Richard P. Feynman, Anthony J. G. Hey, Robin W. Allen.
Feynman Lectures on Computation.
Addison Wesley. 1996

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 23 March 1999

Most people who write books about computation starting at the level of assembly language would then work up from there; Feynman works down, covering lots of the fascinating nitty-gritty stuff that he, as a physicist, is interested in. So there is lots of material here that is rarely found in computing texts, and certainly even more rarely found in as accessible a form as this. And the lectures that are right down in the physics -- on thermodynamically reversible computation and quantum computing -- are some of today's hot topics: Feynman, as usual, was way ahead of his time.

This is a write-up of a series of lectures Feynman gave at CalTech in the mid 1980s, transcribed from tape recordings. So the chapters capture the flavour of the great man's lecturing style, and the informality of the spoken word. But although I am a great admirer of Feynman's, I don't think the change of medium works too well in this case. I'd love to hear these lectures, but when reading, I would prefer a deeper and more polished form.


Introduction to Computers
Computer Organization
The Theory of Computation
Coding and Information Theory
Reversible Computation and the Thermodynamics of Computing
Quantum Mechanical Computers
Physical Aspects of Computation
A. J. G. Hey. Afterword: Memories of Richard Feynman.

Richard P. Feynman.
The Meaning of it All.
Penguin. 1998

rating : 4 : passes the time
review : 11 February 2006

This slim book publishes for the fisrt time three of Feynman's public lectures, given in 1963.

In The Uncertainty of Science he talks about what makes science fun, and the contrast between scientific and unscientific reasoning. His real enthusiasm (if that is strong enough a word) for science shines through.

Then in The Uncertainty of Values, how important it is to adopt a doubtful, questioning approach. Although his example of the opposite is Russia (and particularly Lysenkoism), the sentiment in today's world is just as relevant:

... we are here only at the very beginning of time for the human race. There are thousands of years in the past, and there is an unknown amount of time in the future. There are all kinds of opportunities, and there are all kinds of dangers. Man has been stopped before by stopping his ideas. Man has been jammed for long periods of time. We will not tolerate this. I hope for freedom for future generations---freedom to doubt, to develop, to continue the adventure of finding out new ways of doing things, of solving problems.
     Why do we grapple with problems? We are only in the beginning. We have plenty of time to solve the problems. The only way that we will make a mistake is that in the impetuous youth of humanity we will decide we know the answer. This is it. No one else can think of anything else. And we will jam. We will confine man to the limited imagination of today's human beings.
     We are not so smart. We are dumb. We are ignorant. We must maintain an open channel. ...
     No government has the right to decide on the truth of scientific principles, nor to prescribe in any way the character of the questions investigated. Neither may a government determine the aesthetic value of artistic creations, nor limit the forms of literary or artistic expression. Nor should it pronounce on the validity of economic, historic, religious, or philosophical doctrines. Instead it has a duty to its citizens to maintain the freedom, to let those citizens contribute to the further adventure and the development of the human race.

The final lecture, This Unscientific Age, is less well-structured. Feynman himself admits that he got through all his material in the first two! It is more a sequence of small anecdotes of how unscientific our age is, and how dangerous that can be.

It is interesting to see how much is the same 40 years later, how many of his predictions have come true, and which ones have not. One of the few not so true is plentiful cheap fusion power. (One day, one day.) But most of the scientific predictions have panned out, especially that new advances, in space, in biology, will also cause new problems.

Richard P. Feynman, Jeffrey Robbins.
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: the best short works.
Penguin. 1999


The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. 1981
Computing Machines in the Future. 1985
Los Alamos from Below
What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society. 1964
There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom. 1959
The Value of Science
Richard P. Feynman's Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry
What Is Science? 1966
The Smartest Man in the World. 1979
Cargo Cult Science: some Remarks on Science, Pseudoscience, and Learning How Not to Fool Yourself. 1974
It's as Simple as One, Two, Three
Richard Feynman builds a Universe
The Relation of Science and Religion

Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, Matthew Sands.
Mainly Mechanics, Radiation, and Heat.

(read but not reviewed)

What do we mean by "understanding" something? We can imagine that this complicated array of moving things which constitutes "the world" is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game are; all we are allowed to do is to watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules. The rules of the game are what we mean by fundamental physics. Even if we knew every rule, however, we might not be able to understand why a particular move is made in the game, merely because it is too complicated and our minds are limited. If you play chess you must know that it is easy to learn all the rules, and yet it is often very hard to select the best move or to understand why a player moves as he does. So it is in nature, only much more so; but we may be able at least to find all the rules. Actually, we do not have all the rules now. (Every once in a while something like castling is going on that we still do not understand.) Aside from not knowing all of the rules, what we really can explain in terms of those rules is very limited, because almost all situations are so enormously complicated that we cannot follow the plays of the game using the rules, much less tell what is going to happen next. We must, therefore, limit ourselves to the more basic question of the rules of the game. If we know the rules, we consider that we "understand" the world.

Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, Matthew Sands.
Mainly Electromagnetism and Matter.

(read but not reviewed)

Richard P. Feynman, Robert B. Leighton, Matthew Sands.
Quantum Mechanics.

(read but not reviewed)

Richard P. Feynman, Ralph Leighton.
'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!': adventures of a curious character.

rating : 2.5 : great stuff

Richard P. Feynman, Ralph Leighton.
'What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?': further adventures of a curious character.
Unwin. 1988

rating : 2.5 : great stuff