Richard Feynman Is The 'Quantum Man'

In his new book, Quantum Man, physicist and writer Lawrence M. Krauss describes the scientific contributions, and unique mind, of Nobel Prize-winner Richard Feynman, whom he calls "perhaps the greatest, and probably the most beloved, physicist of the 20th century."

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IRA FLATOW, host:

This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow.

If you're of a certain age, you remember physicist Richard Feynman for his work on quantum physics or his love of the bongo drums. Or you may remember Feynman for his famous demonstration of the effects of ice cold water on the elasticity of rubber as a member on the Rogers Commission. That was a commission set up to study the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster.

Here he is talking about the O-rings that were believed to have caused the shuttle explosion.

Dr. RICHARD FEYNMAN (Physicist): Well, I took this stuff that I got out of (unintelligible), and it put in ice water. And I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it, it doesn't stretch back. It stays the same dimension.

In other words, for a few seconds, at least, and more seconds than that, there's no resilience in this particular material when it's at a temperature of 32 degrees. I believe that has some significance for our problem.

FLATOW: That was a famous demonstration that Feynman did in the committee, and basically dipping material that the O-rings was made out of into ice water and showing how that they lose their resiliency.

Feynman was a showman. He was a character, nine parts scientist, one part showman. And to many laypeople he made science accessible and understandable. But to scientists, Feynman was really a physicist's physicist.

My next guest says Feynman had an unparalleled talent for mathematics, and his intuition, his hard work, his ability to think about physics problems in different ways, his own way, helped to earn him a Nobel Prize.

Joining me now to talk more about Richard Feynman is his most recent biographer, himself a physicist, Lawrence Krauss, the author of "Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science." He's the foundation professor and director of the ASU Origins Project, and joins us from the studios of KJZZ. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Lawrence.

Dr. LAWRENCE KRAUSS (ASU Origins Project): It's always great to be back, Ira.

FLATOW: Well, why do you call him a physicist's physicist?

Dr. KRAUSS: Well, he was an idol for all of us. He became - he was a role model. He could apparently do anything, first of all. Almost any problem he seemed to be able to solve.

But he also established - he was sort of the conscience of physics, in a way. He could joke around. As you mentioned, he was a prankster, but he was - when it came to science, he was dead serious. And he had no tolerance for nonsense, show or hype.

And I think that - all of those aspects - and really the fact that what he said was, you know, in order to really, really do physics, you have to be able to calculate things, get the numbers out and compare with experiment, which is something many of us need to remember often.

FLATOW: So he really believed in the mathematics...

Dr. KRAUSS: Well, not just the mathematics, but more importantly, the fact that the mathematics alone didn't make sense or didn't - wasn't useful unless you could compare it to experiment, unless you can get something out of it that would - that allowed you to compare to the real world.

And I think that's really important. What makes - physics and science are wonderful. The ideas are incredible, and I love talking about them. But what makes science worth talking about is that it works. It allows us to understand the world, predict it, and ultimately control it at some level.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255 is our number, talking with Lawrence Krauss, author of "Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science." That little bit of tape we played of his demonstration of the rubber, the kind of rubber used in the shuttle, in the ice water, was that typical of the way he approached problems, like just totally out of his own way of thinking?

Dr. KRAUSS: Well, it was typical in a number of ways, I think. First of all, he tended to ignore hype and went around NASA's claims about their ability to talk to engineers and the good communication within NASA at the time, and he went straight to the engineers. He figured: If I want to understand the problem, I'll go to where - the place where I can learn the most.

And that's what he was interested in, was learning about the world and not worrying about what people told him about the world but finding out for himself. So he went directly to the engineers and solved that problem.

The other aspect, the showman aspect, was equally characteristic. And, you know, I think it began really early. When he was just a child, 10 or 11, he had a radio repair business, back in the old days when there were tubes in radios, which happily we don't have anymore.

But he - and he, he used to become famous because he would fix them by thinking. And there's a famous example where he was, where someone brought in a radio, it was shrieking at a high decibel level, and no one could stand it.

And he turned it on with the radio shrieking, and he stood there and paced back and forth for 10 minutes and looked it and then interchanged two tubes, and the shrieking stopped.

And I'm convinced even as a child he knew right away what the problem was, but he left it going for a long time just to add to the effect.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: Tell us, for people who never knew anything about him or just knew him from his later years in life: What made his reputation? What was he famous for?

Dr. KRAUSS: Well, that's the key point. I mean, the point of the book is a scientific biography. There are lots of biographies of the man, because he was so fascinating, but very few really focus on the science, and that's what I wanted to do, use Feynman's life as a hook, if you wish, to talk about his science, which spanned really almost every major development in the 20th century and even the 21st century.

The key - the reason it's called "Quantum Man" is what he did was redevelop and redefine for us our whole view of quantum mechanics. He presented a picture of the quantum world, which was completely different than that which was available at the time.

And of course, you know, that alone is interesting, I suppose. It gives you a very intuitive understanding of quantum mechanics. It really was involved by talking about the paths that particles take and realizing that in the quantum world particles can take many different paths at the same time, and you have to take all that into account to solve the problem.

But more importantly, that technology that he developed was not only insightful, it allowed him to develop a new calculational scheme that allowed the merging of relativity, quantum mechanics, electromagnetism into a theory with which we could calculate.

And it has now become the best theory in physics and all of science. It's the only place where you can compare theoretical predictions with experiments from first principles to, say, nine decimal places. And we can do that in large part because of the calculational techniques that Feynman developed, including things called Feynman diagrams.

There's not an issue of physics today that doesn't have Feynman diagrams in it, and that technology - you know, when he said - there was an interesting moment when he, as he said, when he really knew that was his Nobel Prize.

He won the Nobel Prize much later, but after he developed this scheme, he was at a conference, and someone was doing a calculation that took two and a half years. And Feynman arrived, and people were claiming it was wrong. And Feynman arrived the night before, redid the calculation in much greater generality, in a single night.

And when he discovered he could do in a single night what had required three or four years before, then he said that's when I got my prize. That's when I knew I had something really useful. And that's what Feynman wanted to do.

But if he'd stopped there, you know, that would've been enough, as we say. But he went on to have, to make incredible impacts in the fields of low-temperature physics, describing from first principles and explaining super-fluidity in liquid helium, the amazing fact that liquid helium, below a certain temperature, becomes super-fluid. It'll flow out of any container no matter what you do with it.

He - in fact, apropos of the interview you just did, he was involved in computers, in fact really proposed quantum computing, which is now at the heart of a lot of what people are trying to do in developing new types of computers.

He was involved in quantum gravity and ultimately in the theory of the strong interaction. So basically almost every major development in 20th and 21st century physics Feynman was involved in, which for me was the reason I wanted to tell this story, because it's a great way to, through a narrative, to bring people up-to-date in what's happening in physics.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255, talking with Lawrence Krauss, author of "Quantum Man." Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Alan(ph) in Davenport, Iowa. Hi, Alan.

ALAN (Caller): Yes, hello. One thing that recently, I understand, is not really experimental in the sense you can't get any results from it, is string theory. I wondered how Mr. Feynman, what would your guess be that he would - and how would he approach string theory?

Dr. KRAUSS: Well, I don't have to guess because he actually made some comments about it. He was not a big fan of string theory at the time because it didn't produce any numbers that could be compared with experiment.

In fact, he said it doesn't really explain anything. It has to be excused most of the time. And he found - you know, he was very naturally skeptical. And I think it's important for a scientist to be skeptical.

And so he - you know, as he said, I've heard a lot people saying they have more or less the theory of everything over the years. And it hasn't worked out. And I think what Feynman said is maybe it'll be true, but right now it really, it really has to be excused most of the time, and it doesn't - if it doesn't agree with experiment, then they make an excuse, or if it can't do a calculation, then they make an excuse.

Now, a lot of progress has been made, and I think he probably would still be highly skeptical of the idea. And you know, what he said is that for him, he wasn't aiming to get a theory of everything.

In some sense, as my friend Frank Wolchek(ph) said, Feynman wanted to have a theory of something. Namely, what he wanted to do was understand things. And as he said, he didn't care whether the universe was like an onion, where every time you peel back a layer, there was something new to learn, and there was an infinite amount to learn, or whether there would ultimately be some theory that you could put on a T-shirt that would explain everything.

He just wanted to understand things. And at the point he was working, string theory really didn't explain anything for him, and he was therefore rather dismissive of it.

FLATOW: I think one of the interesting parts about his life is that you talked about all the things that he was a pioneer in, and one of those things he talked about in his career that people had not heard about at that point, or at least outside of the physics world, was nanotechnology, nanoparticles and things. And he talked about how there was room at the bottom.

Dr. KRAUSS: In a very famous paper, 1960, just a general paper, way in advance of the period when we could actually do these things, he realized: Look, there's a whole new world of technology that we're not exploring. And he started to think about what you might be able to do if you could explore, and ultimately said maybe we can get down at the level where quantum mechanics itself becomes manifest and then we can make machines that depend on quantum mechanics, and wouldn't that be fascinating.

And in order to promote the idea, he did something interesting. This was before he won the Nobel Prize. He actually offered prizes, two $1,000 prizes for two bits of nanotechnology that he proposed. One was a motor that would be less than one-sixty-fourth of an inch on the side, fully working. And the other was a prize for someone who could put an entire page of a book on a region of material less than one-twenty-five-thousandth of an inch. And to his dismay to some extent, someone came along within six months and had the motor.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Dr. KRAUSS: He wasn't prepared to give the prize. And he said - he was a little disappointed because it didn't require any new technology. But he said, now, don't start writing things small because I just bought a house, and I don't plan to make good on the next prize because I'm married and I've got to pay for the house.

(Soundbite of laughter)

FLATOW: (Unintelligible) did he have - was he tolerant of - you know, there's an interesting account in your book about an exchange with Steven Weinberg, who would go in to win a Noble Prize, and he hammered Steven Weinberg in a talk that Weinberg was giving. Why do you think he could be such a harsh - you know, so harsh on an audience member there?

Dr. KRAUSS: Well, you know, it's an interesting question, because he was he was fascinating to talk to. And if he put his interest on you, it was captivating. And the minute he was interested in something, you had to say it was amazing. But he wasn't tolerant of approaches that he didn't like. It surprises me that, I think I think because Steve Weinberg is an amazing scientist but approaches things very differently than Feynman did. Steve tends to look at the most general possible case and, like a bulldozer, solve that problem and then deal with specific examples, where Feynman used to sort of try and understand specific examples.

And maybe that was part of the reason that he wasn't so nice to Weinberg at that time. But more importantly, he wasn't tolerant of people expressing nonsense. And there was an example, which is, again, maybe significant because it involved the future Noble Prize winner, Fred Reines, who won the Nobel Prize for discovering the neutrino.

And there was a very famous example years later, well before Reines won the Nobel Prize, and perhaps it contributed to the delay in Reines winning the Nobel Prize, where Reines made a claim about neutrinos in the experiment, and Feynman looked at the experiment, realized immediately it was nonsense, and publicly, in some sense, at a meeting, humiliated him. Because he basically said, you know, well, his feeling was that he had no tolerance for nonsense and he thought the experimentalist should check their results better.

You know what Feynman also said, which I think is really important, is that we all want to believe in some sense. We - and he said, you know, he used to go around to people and he used to say, you won't believe what happened to me today. You just won't believe what happened. And they'd say what? And he'd say, absolutely nothing. Because most people, when something happens to us, we think it's significant. And sometimes it's just an accident.

And the same happens to experimentalists. Sometimes, in their experiment, there's a weird glitch. And sometimes they can believe it's real and unfortunately go out and publish it. And Feynman basically said, look, look, you have to, if you're a scientist, try and prove what's right about your ideas, but you have to prove what's wrong at the same time. And he had very little tolerance of people who didn't question themselves before they went out in public.

FLATOW: Talking with Lawrence Krauss, author of "Quantum Man" on SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

Let's see if we can go back to the phones, take a call or two. David in Cincinnati. Hi, David.

DAVID (Caller): Hey, how you doing?

FLATOW: Hi there.

DAVID: I was wondering about religion and science. You know, I'm not a scientist or anything, but I'm always hearing about, well, if you're religious, you don't deal with the facts and you can't be a scientist and religion has nothing to do with science. Is that true, in your opinion?

Dr. KRAUSS: Well, in my opinion, that religion indeed does have very little to do with science. I think Feynman also expressed the notion a number of different ways. He said once, I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn't frighten me.

So I think the point with Feynman was that - what he said is I'd rather be wrong - I'm sorry I'd rather not understand things than be certain of something which is wrong. And I think his suspicion about certain aspects of religion is that people felt they knew the answer without discovering it. So Feynman was not religious. There are some religious scientists. And it's not impossible to be religious and be a scientist. There are many good religious scientists.

But for Feynman, and to some extent for myself, I think that the notion is that we'd rather - that it's the mystery of the universe that's so exciting. And as far as we can tell, there's no evidence for any supernatural requirements. We can understand the history of the universe back to the earliest moments of the Big Bang just by using the laws of physics. And nature itself, understood via experiment, is sufficient for us. It's sufficient to excite us and meet all of our needs. For some people it isn't sufficient.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. What's the one thing that you would like people to remember or to know about Richard Feynman?

Dr. KRAUSS: That - well, I think that the thing that I tried to emphasized at the beginning of our discussion, that people know of him as a man full of joie de vivre. His life was fascinating. He loved adventure and excitement. And he loved joking around. But for Feynman, the proof of the pudding was in the science. And he said reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

And probably that's the greatest lesson, I think, I'd like to leave with - for Feynman, is that it's nature that tells us how it behaves. And if we want to learn how the universe works, we have to get our answers from nature. And we have to be willing to go fearlessly in that direction and do whatever is possible to find out. And Feynman was nothing if not fearless.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. I want to thank you, Lawrence, for coming on today.

Dr. KRAUSS: It's been a pleasure, as always.

FLATOW: And tell us a little bit about - you have your ASU Origins project coming up at ASU this year?

Dr. KRAUSS: Yes, we're having a big event in April, which I hope will, in fact, have some - we'll be back on SCIENCE FRIDAY to discuss. We're going to celebrate science and culture, because science is a vital part of our culture and origins itself is an area that merges science and culture, the questions of where do we come from, where are we going.

And since the two - since it spans the two areas, we wanted to have a celebration of culture inspired by science. And so we're bringing together music and we're having a - we're having Holst "The Planets" with images from NASA and a lecture from Stephen Hawking, and actually narration for the music by me. We're bringing Werner Herzog in for his brand-new 3-D movie on "Cave of Forgotten Dreams," which will bring people back to the dawn of modern humanity. And actually a dance number choreographed and produced by Liz Lerman, a MacArthur prize-winning dance choreographer, on a matter of origins.

And so there'll be a whole celebration of science and culture, because one of the things we often forget is that science is not just good for producing technology. It's really - it really addresses our place in the universe and changes our perspective of our place in the universe. And that's what good art, music, literature does. So we should celebrate both.

FLATOW: We will drop in and sample a little from that meeting. Thank you, Lawrence, for taking time to be with us today. Good luck on the book, "Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science." Have a good weekend.

Dr. KRAUSS: Thanks again.

FLATOW: You're welcome.

Dr. KRAUSS: Take care.

FLATOW: Lawrence Krauss is author of "Quantum Man," and he is also foundation professor and director of the ASU Origins Project at Arizona State University.

We're going to take a break. We're going to come back and talk about spacesuits. You won't believe who made them. We'll be right back after this break.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

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