“I don’t understand it. Nobody does.” A Review of “QED” by Richard P. Feynman

150px-feynman3This book is the edited transcription of a lecture series given by renowned physicist, Richard P. Feynman, at UCLA in 1983. These lectures were designed for an audience of intelligent individuals who are interested in physics but only the good stuff, not the dirty work of slogging through all the math. That said, unless you are a physicist, masochist or perhaps need something to put you to sleep at night this book is not for you.

Feynman in my opinion is one of the greatest physicists of all times, mostly because of his ability to explain just about anything at a level lay people, or at least those like myself with a lowly bachelor’s degree in physics, could understand. When I was in college pursuing such I relied heavily on my three volume set of “Feynman’s Lectures on Physics” to help me understand certain theories where my college texts failed to explain them sufficiently. Thus, when I obtained this book I expected it to provide a better understanding of quantum electrodynamics than I had previously, which of course was essentially null so it could only increase. That did, indeed, happen, but not to the level I’d hoped for.

Feynman warns his readers right up front in the Introduction on page 9 when he says, “It is my task to convince you not to turn away because you don’t understand it. You see, my physics students don’t understand it either. That is because I don’t understand it. Nobody does.”

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QED is way beyond this diagram of a photon increasing the quantum level of an electron or reducing it when released.

Great. It was considerate to point out right up front that I would feel either lost or stupid throughout, which certainly proved to be the case. For me even the various diagrams he uses to explain these phenomena (which ultimately became known as Feynman diagrams) were more confusing than not. He did note that it took his graduate student three years to grasp them which was somewhat comforting. Nonetheless, toward the end they reminded me more of Abbott and Costello’s famous skit we know as “Who’s on first?” than the interaction of fundamental particles. However, Feynman’s humor and witty style kept me reading for such jewels as “I have delighted in showing you that the price of gaining such an accurate theory has been the erosion of our common sense.”

Nonetheless, as I lay this book to rest on my shelf I will admit that it does contain numerous dog-eared pages and lots of highlighting. I’m fascinated by the fact that some particles at the quantum level go backward in time. I mean, seriously, how cool is that? I now understand that QED is about the mysterious interaction between photons and electrons, which of course makes sense with a title of “quantum electrodynamics.” Duh. I now also understand more fully what a Feynman diagram comprises. Thus, even though he was correct in assuming that I wouldn’t understand it, I do know more than I did when I started reading so the experience was not a total loss.

One thing to bear in mind if you should decide to take on this book is that since 1983 when these lectures were delivered (and just happens to be the year I started college) much more has been discovered in the field of particle physics. This is explained beautifully by the proofreading notes at the end of this book, the first dated November 1984 which states, “Since these lectures were given, suspicious events observed in experiments made it appear possible that some other particle or phenomenon, new and unexpected (and therefore not mentioned in these lectures), may soon be discovered.” The second proofreading note dated April 1985 stated, “At this moment the “suspicious events” mentioned above appear to be a false alarm. The situation no doubt will have changed again by the time you read this book. Things change faster in physics than in the book publishing business.”

Probably the biggest news in this field to come in the past few years was the discovery of the “God particle” or Higgs boson. This book certainly prepares you for the existence of new particles and provides some understanding of what is involved in that process and why it’s not an easy matter. It you really want to get into this stuff this book is a good primer.

In conclusion, it’s worth noting that “Q.E.D.” is a term also used in mathematics at the end of a proof as an abbreviation for the Latin saying “quod erat demonstrandum,” i.e., “which was to be demonstrated.” If nothing else, Feynman truly demonstrated that this stuff really is beyond human understanding even for those who can do the math. In other words, they may be able to determine what is going on but certainly not the why, which lies in another realm. Thus, it is my sincerest hope that since this great man now resides in that very place that he can at last fully understand it. I sure don’t.

You can pick up your copy if you’re so inclined at the link below.

QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (Princeton Science Library)

What’s Behind the Science in Science Fiction Part 5: The Matter – Consciousness Interface

Now we’re getting to the good stuff and I hope you can see why I gave you all that background information leading up to it. In order to fully appreciate something, whether it’s good music or literature, you need a foundation, no matter how rudimentary it may be. And believe me, it was, even though your eyes may have glazed over. My previous posts were a whirlwind tour of physics for dummies but you are now much better informed than most people out there, assuming you read it. Congratulate yourself! I will try to reward your efforts by building on that information so that anyone who skipped it will be entirely lost and need to go back and suffer through it like the rest of you.

Quantum theory was mind-blowing because it introduced the possibility that an observer could influence how light and even matter behaved. This, of course, was only proven on a very small scale, yet the influence was there. Suddenly the world of physics and metaphysics were starting to overlap.

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One of my heroes in the physics world is Richard Feinman because he demonstrated an interest in so many things besides physics. I believe he was as brilliant as he was to the point of winning a Nobel Prize was because he was so open-minded and had the courage to see things differently. That is how breakthroughs come about.  I’ll be forever grateful to him for his “Lectures on Physics” which helped tremendously when the textbooks fell short.

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Another great physicist who seemed to grok the concept that there was more to life than one’s own very specific discipline was Werner Heisenberg, also a Nobel Prize winning physicist with an actual phenomena named after him that relates to quantum theory, i.e. the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle. He stated, “It is probably true quite generally that in the history of human thinking the most fruitful developments frequently take place at those points where two different lines of thought meet. These lines may have their roots in quite different parts of human cultures, in different times or different cultural environments or different religious traditions: hence if they actually meet, that is, if they are at least so much related to each other that a real interaction can take place, then one may hope that new and interesting developments may follow.”

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Hello? Ya think that maybe quantum theory would be a good one for collaboration with other disciplines? Scientists need to talk to one another! Here we have physicists scratching their heads over whether consciousness and matter interact while we have psychologists such as Dean Radin researching psi phenomena which may well be the mechanism that causes that interaction between consciousness and matter. Rather than treating these researchers with about the same respect at Dr. Venkman (played by Bill Murray) in Ghostbusters, maybe they should get together over a pitcher of margaritas and see what they come up with.

Quantum entanglement is the term used to describe two particles which become tied up with each other enough, kind of like atomic soulmates, that even when they are separated by long distances, if something happens to change the state of one, the other reacts also. This happens instantaneously, i.e. the communication occurs faster than the speed of light, a barrier that was never supposed to be breached. Psi is also instantaneous. Does this imply that we become entangled with others at the quantum level? This is especially enticing when you think of the stories of identical twins who originated with the same genetic material and are also connected at the psychic level.

Along similar lines is the concept known as NLP or neuro-linguistic programming. It has also been called “the power of positive thinking,” and described in a movie called “The Secret” and promoted by a plethora of motivational speakers who declare that you can create your future by visualizing what you want on an consistent basis such that you will eventually draw that situation to you from the Universe at large. If psi has the power to manipulate matter and create not only matter but circumstances, doesn’t that sound as if it has something to do with quantum theory?

Weird, you bet. But it works. We can, indeed, draw circumstances to us in this manner. Which bring me to favorite quote of mine from science fiction author, Arthur C. Clarke: “Technology sufficiently far advanced is indistinguishable from magic.” What would Isaac Newton think of your smartphone?

However, there was one rather large problem that comes down to one, little three-letter word: EGO.

Scientists tend to have tunnel vision when it comes to their own field of study. I remember hearing once that as a person comes closer to a PhD that their IQ actually goes down. This does not mean that they are losing brain cells from overwork and losing intelligence. The typical IQ test assesses how much a person knows about a broad spectrum of knowledge and as a person narrows their interests down to the level required to pursue a PhD they get in the realm where they know a lot about a little which actually jeopardizes their IQ. This also means that they start blocking out anything that doesn’t relate to their chosen subject. They can become arrogant as they become experts and sabotage their colleagues who are seen as competitors for needed research funding. There is also the status issue. If you’re proven wrong you are probably through. After all that work getting to that pinnacle, the last thing you want is some upstart to push you off.

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Breaching this obstacle is likely to require what has been described as “progress by funerals.” In other words, as the old farts die off and those new upstarts take over, things will move along much faster.

At least until the upstarts scale that pinnacle and replicate the cycle.

(c) Copyright 2014 by Marcha Fox All Rights Reserved