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Aidan Randle-Conde | Université Libre de Bruxelles | Belgium

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Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science

CERN recently hosted a wonderful talk by Lawrence Krauss on the life of Richard Feynman called “Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science”. Krauss is one of the most gifted and engaging speakers who specializes in physics. His talk coincides with the release of his latest book of the same name. You can watch a recording of the talk on the CERN Document Server.

Krauss knows his audience, and he knew that at CERN he would be talking to physicists, engineers and people who are driven by the need to understand the world around us. For me this made the talk very moving, because as well as discussing the persona of Feynman (he has almost cult status amongst physicists) he also discussed the scientific mind of Feynman, and that humanized Feynman for me.

Krauss (far right) talking in the CERN Council Chamber

Krauss (far right) talking in the CERN Council Chamber

Finding role models in science is not always easy. We tend to know people only through their discoveries and not through their personalities. We hear of Nobel laureates, but not of the path they took to get there. Seeing just how a scientist approached problems and performed research is the part of understanding not only who they were as a person, but who we can be as well. Feynman put in a huge amount of work in terms of learning how to solve problems. He tried to solve nearly every problem he came across and he rote learned a great deal. What made Feynman different, however, was just how much he enjoyed a new problem. He lost his wife while he worked at Los Alamos and Krauss points out that he was rather unproductive after he left Los Alamos. It was only when he decided to start solving problems for the sake of it again that he became very productive. Seeing the weaknesses as well as the strengths brings our heroes back to reality. I’m sure we can all relate to this- those time when we lose the drive that keeps us going, only to rediscover it and the immense joy that comes with that.

I won’t say a great deal more about Feynman except to say that it was his Lectures on Physics that rekindled my enthusiasm for physics when I was an undergrad. I was at Oxford at the time, and the physics course was very formal, very dry and we had to find the joy in it however we could. After two years of rote learning and getting to grips with some ingenious but uninspiring problems I was ready to give it up, or at least just wait out the degree. Over the long summer vacation I read how Feynman taught electromagnetism and I was entranced. I couldn’t wait to start the next term and see physics in a whole new light! Working on problems was not the best way for me to learn physics, although it is definitely necessary. What really matters is putting together a grand picture of the whole system and seeing the symmetry and beauty of the theory. This makes everything much more exciting, it shows all the strengths and paradoxes of the theory, and suggests where to take it next. Since reading his lectures I’ve read a great deal more of his work, including QED, Six Easy Pieces and, perhaps best of all, Surely You’re Joking. Each book amazed me. The problems that fascinated Feynman fascinate me too, and these include the principle of least action, the self energy of the electron and the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics. The areas he worked on are still captivating and some of the ideas are still waiting for more answers. So without Feynman I might have taken a completely different course in my career.

I may not be a Nobel Laureate, but I do identify a lot with Feynman and the way he thought, and to see his life from a different point of view is wonderful! Krauss’s talk was an appeal to our ambition, our sense of wonder and intended to inspire us. Leaving that talk, I felt more energized and more enthusiastic than I had for months!

If you enjoyed watching Krauss’s talk, you may also enjoy watching his talk about the origin of the universe, called “A Universe From Nothing“. This talk was presented at the Atheist Alliance International meeting 2009 and the video is provided by the Richard Dawkins Foundation. Krauss talks about the deepest problems facing the origins of the universe in terms of cosmology and quantum mechanics, and shows how our observations have changed our understanding of the universe on the largest scales.

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