The Science and Legacy of Richard Feynman

Avinash Dhar, Apoorva D. Patel, Spenta R. Wadia
This year is the 100th birth anniversary of Richard Philips Feynman. This article commemorates his scientific contributions and lasting legacy.

… He influenced the way physicists think about physics, especially physical processes whose description requires the quantum theory. Feynman’s approach to physics was to show how the solution to a problem unravels, aided by a visual language that encapsulates complicated mathematical expressions. James Gleick put this very succinctly, “Feynman’s reinvention of quantum mechanics did not so much explain how the world was, or why it was that way, as to tell how to confront the world. It was not knowledge of or knowledge about. It was knowledge how to.” He went to the heart of the problem he was working on, built up the solutions from simple ground rules in a step by step nuts and bolts way, articulating the steps as he built up the solution, keeping in mind that science is highly constrained by the fact that it is a description of the natural world. He laid bare the strategy of the solution, and was explicit about the various difficulties that need to be surmounted, perhaps now or in the next attempt to solve the problem: “In physics the truth is rarely perfectly clear.” Feynman’s attitude to ‘fundamental physics’ is well put in the collection, ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’: “People say to me, ‘Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?’ No, I’m not, I’m just looking to find out more about the world, and if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it, that would be very nice to discover.” …


Who discovered positron annihilation?

Positron annihilatioTim Dunker
In the early 1930s, the positron, pair production, and, at last, positron annihilation were discovered. Over the years, several scientists have been credited with the discovery of the annihilation radiation. Commonly, Thibaud and Joliot have received credit for the discovery of positron annihilation. A conversation between Werner Heisenberg and Theodor Heiting prompted me to examine relevant publications, when these were submitted and published, and how experimental results were interpreted in the relevant articles. I argue that it was Theodor Heiting – usually not mentioned at all in relevant publications – who discovered positron annihilation, and that he should receive proper credit.

What Is a Black Hole?

Erik Curiel
Although black holes are objects of central importance across many fields of physics, there is no agreed upon definition for them, a fact that does not seem to be widely recognized. Physicists in different fields conceive of and reason about them in radically different, and often conflicting, ways. All those ways, however, seem sound in the relevant contexts. After examining and comparing many of the definitions used in practice, I consider the problems that the lack of a universally accepted definition leads to, and discuss whether one is in fact needed for progress in the physics of black holes. I conclude that, within reasonable bounds, the profusion of different definitions is in fact a virtue, making the investigation of black holes possible and fruitful in all the many different kinds of problems about them that physicists consider, although one must take care in trying to translate results between fields.

The Gibbs Paradox


The Gibbs setup. In (a) the membrane MA is permeable to A, impermeable to B, whilst MB is permeable to B, impermeable to A; the pistons are allowed to expand; In (b) the gases are the same and a partition is removed. The pressures and temperatures in both chambers are the same.

Simon Saunders
The Gibbs Paradox is essentially a set of open questions as to how sameness of gases or fluids (or masses, more generally) are to be treated in thermodynamics and statistical mechanics. They have a variety of answers, some restricted to quantum theory (there is no classical solution), some to classical theory (the quantum case is different). The solution offered here applies to both in equal measure, and is based on the concept of particle indistinguishability (in the classical case, Gibbs’ notion of ‘generic phase’). Correctly understood, it is the elimination of sequence position as a labelling device, where sequences enter at the level of the tensor (or Cartesian) product of one-particle state spaces. In both cases it amounts to passing to the quotient space under permutations. ‘Distinguishability’, in the sense in which it is usually used in classical statistical mechanics, is a mathematically convenient, but physically muddled, fiction.


Temporal relationalism

Lee Smolin
Because of the non-locality of quantum entanglement, realist approaches to completing quantum mechanics have implications for our conception of space. Quantum gravity also is expected to predict phenomena in which the locality of classical spacetime is modified or disordered. It is then possible that the right quantum theory of gravity will also be a completion of quantum mechanics in which the foundational puzzles in both are addressed together. I review here the results of a program, developed with Roberto Mangabeira Unger, Marina Cortes and other collaborators, which aims to do just that. The results so far include energetic causal set models, time asymmetric extensions of general relativity and relational hidden variables theories, including real ensemble approaches to quantum mechanics. These models share two assumptions: that physics is relational and that time and causality are fundamental.

Memories of a Theoretical Physicist

Joseph Polchinski

While I was dealing with a brain injury and finding it difficult to work, two friends (Derek Westen, a friend of the KITP, and Steve Shenker, with whom I was recently collaborating), suggested that a new direction might be good. Steve in particular regarded me as a good writer and suggested that I try that. I quickly took to Steve’s suggestion. Having only two bodies of knowledge, myself and physics, I decided to write an autobiography about my development as a theoretical physicist.
This is not written for any particular audience, but just to give myself a goal. It will probably have too much physics for a nontechnical reader, and too little for a physicist, but perhaps there with be different things for each. Parts may be tedious. But it is somewhat unique, I think, a blow-by-blow history of where I started and where I got to.
Probably the target audience is theoretical physicists, especially young ones, who may enjoy comparing my struggles with their own. Some disclaimers: This is based on my own memories, jogged by the arXiv and Inspire. There will surely be errors and omissions. And note the title: this is about my memories, which will be different for other people. Also, it would not be possible for me to mention all the authors whose work might intersect mine, so this should not be treated as a reference work.


Nietzsche for physicists

J. C. S. Neves
One of the most important philosophers in the history, the German Friedrich Nietzsche, is almost ignored by physicists. The author who stated the death of God in 19th century was a science enthusiast, mainly during the second part of his work. With the aid of the physical concept of force, Nietzsche created his concept of will to power. Thinking about the energy conservation, the German philosopher had some inspiration for creating his concept of the eternal recurrence.
In this article, one points out some influences of physics on Nietzsche and discusses the topicality of his epistemological position, the perspectivism. From the concept of will to power, I propose that the perspectivism leads to the interpretation where physics, and science in general, is viewed as a game.