Selected Papers of Richard Feynman (with commentary)

1 April 2001

edited by Laurie M Brown, World Scientific Series in 20th Century Physics, Vol. 27, ISBN 981 02 4130 5 hbk ISBN 981 02 4131 3 pbk.


After A Quantum Legacy, the selected papers of Julian Schwinger, it is fitting that the next volume in this carefully selected series covers the work of Richard Feynman.

Now a cult figure, Feynman is fast becoming one of the most prolifically documented physicists of the past century. As well as his own popular work (You Must Be Joking, What Do You Care What Other People Think?) and his various lectures, there are biographies or biographical material by Gleick, Brown and Rigden, Mehra, Schweber, Sykes, and Gribbin and Gribbin.

Anecdotes about such a flamboyant character are easy to find, but the man’s reputation ultimately rests on his major contributions to science, which this book  amply documents. Chapters, of various lengths, deal with his work in quantum chemistry, classical and quantum electrodynamics, path integrals and operator calculus, liquid helium, the physics of elementary particles, quantum gravity and computer theory. Each has its own commentary.

As a foretaste of things to come, the first chapter serves up just a single paper – “Forces in molecules” – written by Feynman at the age of 21, in his final year as an undergraduate at MIT. This result – the Hellmann-Feynman theorem -has played an important role  in theoretical chemistry and condensed matter physics.

Chapter 2 begins with Feynman’s 1965 Nobel Lecture, goes on to include work with John Wheeler at Princeton, which explored the underlying assumptions about the interaction of radiation and matter, and concludes with the classic 1949 papers that presented his revolutionary approach to quantum electrodynamics.

The Nobel Lecture alone is worth reading – clearly a major early source of Feynman anecdote, such as the Slotnick episode. One is struck by Feynman’s ambivalent attitudes – his enormous regard for father figures such as Wheeler and Bethe on the one hand, and his clear disdain for many contemporaries on the other. Another good read in this chapter is Feynman’s paper presented at the 1961 Solvay meeting, and the ensuing discussion.

Chapter 3 deals with the detailed presentation of the path integral approach, which enabled Feynman to dissect electrodynamics and look at it from a fresh, uncluttered viewpoint.

From 1953 to 1958, Feynman looked for fresh pasture and produced a series of seminal papers on the atomic theory of superfluid helium, which is presented in Chapter 4.

Chapter 5 is split into two parts. The first, on weak interactions, includes the classic 1957 paper with Gell-Mann and some lecture notes from the 1960s exploring the consequences of SU3 symmetry for weak interactions. The second part – by far the largest section of the book – deals with his approach to partons, quarks and gluons. Feyman began thinking about describing hadrons simply as an assembly of smaller parts – his partons – just when experiments were beginning to probe this inner structure. This is a good example of how Feynman, arriving at a fresh interest, would invariably strip problems down to their essential parts before reassembling them in a way that he, and many other people too, understood better.

Feynman’s interest in numerical computation went back to his time at Los Alamos, when he had to model the behaviour of explosions using only the mechanical calculators of the time. Coming back to the subject in the 1980s, he went on to pioneer the idea of quantum computers. Apart from the prophetic papers published here, this aspect of his work has been well documented in The Feynman Lectures on Computing (ed. A J G Hey and R W Allen, Perseus).

Selected Papers of Richard Feynman concludes with a full bibliography. Even without the burgeoning Feynman cult, such a selection of key papers is a useful reference. However, with almost 1000 pages, the book could perhaps havebeen better signposted.  The selected papers are not listed in the initial contents and the pages have no running heads to indicate how the chapters fall.

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