This is What Richard Feynman’s PhD Thesis Looks Like: A Video Introduction

Richard Feyn­man wasn’t just an “ordi­nary genius.” He was, accord­ing to math­e­mati­cian Mark Kac “in his tax­on­o­my of the two types of genius­es,” a “magi­cian” and “a cham­pi­on of sci­en­tif­ic knowl­edge so effec­tive and so beloved that he has gen­er­at­ed an entire canon of per­son­al mythol­o­gy,” writes Maria Popo­va at Brain Pick­ings. Many a Feyn­man anec­dote comes from Feyn­man him­self, who bur­nished his pop­u­lar image with two best­selling auto­bi­ogra­phies. His sto­ries about his life in sci­ence are extra­or­di­nary, and true, includ­ing one he tells the first sem­i­nar he gave at Prince­ton in 1939, attend­ed by Wolf­gang Pauli, John von Neu­mann, and Albert Ein­stein.

“Ein­stein,” Feyn­man writes in Sure­ly You’re Jok­ing, Mr. Feyn­man!, “appre­ci­at­ed that things might be dif­fer­ent from what his the­o­ry stat­ed; he was very tol­er­ant of oth­er ideas.” The young upstart had many oth­er ideas. As biog­ra­ph­er James Gle­ick writes, Feyn­man was “near­ing the crest of his pow­ers. At twen­ty three… there may now have been no physi­cist on earth who could match his exu­ber­ant com­mand over the native mate­ri­als of the­o­ret­i­cal sci­ence.” He had yet to com­plete his dis­ser­ta­tion and would take a break from his doc­tor­al stud­ies to work on the Man­hat­tan Project in 1941.

Then, in 1942, Feyn­man sub­mit­ted his the­sis, Prin­ci­ples of least action in quan­tum mechan­ics, super­vised John Archibald Wheel­er, with whom Feyn­man shares the name of an elec­tro­dy­nam­ic the­o­rem. Pub­lished for the first time in 2005 by World Sci­en­tif­ic, “its orig­i­nal motive,” notes the pub­lish­er, “was to quan­tize the clas­si­cal action-at-a-dis­tance electrodynamics”—partly in response to the chal­lenges posed to his ear­ly lec­tures. In order to do this, says Toby, host of the video above, “he’ll need to come up with his own for­mu­la­tion of quan­tum mechan­ics, and he does this by first com­ing up with a new for­mu­la­tion in clas­si­cal mechan­ics,” which he must apply to quan­tum mechan­ics. “This turns out to be a bit of a chal­lenge.”

Feyn­man him­self found it insur­mount­able. “I nev­er solved it,” he writes in Sure­ly You’re Jok­ing, “a quan­tum the­o­ry of half-advanced, half-retard­ed potentials—and I worked on it for years.” But his “field-less elec­tro­dy­nam­ics” pos­sessed a “stu­pen­dous effi­cien­cy,” argues physi­cist Olivi­er Dar­rigol, that “appeared like mag­ic to most of his com­peti­tors.” The val­ue of this ear­ly work, says Toby, lies not in its abil­i­ty to solve the prob­lems it rais­es, but to come up with “a new way to approach things”—a method of con­tin­u­al search­ing that served him his entire career. He may have dis­card­ed many of the ideas in the the­sis, but his “mag­i­cal” think­ing would nonethe­less lead to lat­er mas­sive break­throughs like Feyn­man dia­grams.

Those who fol­low the math can do so in the fif­teen-minute video walk­through of the Feynman’s thesis—and read the the­sis in pdf form here. Toby lists sev­er­al sources on key con­cepts on the video’s YouTube page to get you up to speed. If the high-lev­el physics flies right over your head, learn more about how Feynman’s incred­i­ble abil­i­ty to learn and teach almost any sub­ject made him such a flex­i­ble and cre­ative thinker in Gleick’s book, Genius: The Life and Sci­ence of Richard Feyn­man.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Is Now Com­plete­ly Online

Richard Feynman’s Tech­nique for Learn­ing Some­thing New: An Ani­mat­ed Intro­duc­tion

Richard Feynman’s “Lost Lec­ture:” An Ani­mat­ed Retelling

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • ma-ni says:

    hi tibee and josh. thanx for this nice piece and for call­ing the atten­tion to feyn­mans the­sis. always good to fol­low up on this great sci­en­tist and com­mu­ni­ca­tor (as you are too :). “No attempt is made at math­e­mat­i­cal rig­or.” p.8 :) stay safe!

  • non-player says:

    Feyn­man would­n’t be cow­er­ing in fear over a virus. Whats with the bait and switch top­ic.

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