How Richard Feynman’s Diagrams Revolutionized Physics

If you want to understand theoretical physics these days—as much as is possible without years of specialized study—there are no shortage of places to turn on the internet. Of course, this was not the case in the early 1960s when Richard Feynman gave his famous series of lectures at Caltech. In published form, these lectures became the most popular book on physics ever written. Feynman’s subsequent autobiographical essays and accessible public appearances further solidified his reputation as the foremost popular communicator of physics, “a fun-loving, charismatic practical joker,” writes Mette Ilene Holmnis at Quanta magazine, even if “his performative sexism looks very different to modern eyes.”

Feynman’s genius went beyond that of “ordinary geniuses,” his mentor, Hans Bethe, director of the Manhattan Project, exclaimed: “Feynman was a magician.” That may be so, but he was never above revealing how he learned his tricks, such that anyone could use his methods, whether or not they could achieve his spectacular results. Feynman didn’t only teach his students, and his millions of readers, about physics; he also taught them how to teach themselves. The so-called “Feynman technique” for effective studying ensures that students don’t just parrot knowledge, but that they can “identify any gaps” in their understanding, he emphasized, and bolster weak points where they “can’t explain an idea simply.”

Years before he became the foremost public communicator of science, Feynman performed the same service for his colleagues. “With physicists in the late 1940s struggling to reformulate a relativistic quantum theory describing the interactions of electrically charged particles,” Holmnis writes, “Feynman conjured up some Nobel Prize-winning magic. He introduced a visual method to simplify the seemingly impossible calculations needed to describe basic particle interactions.” The video above, animated by Holmnis, shows just how simple it was—just a few lines, squiggles, circles, and arrows.

Holmnis quotes Feynman biographer James Gleick’s description: Feynman “took the half-made conceptions of waves and particles in the 1940s and shaped them into tools that ordinary physicists could use and understand.” Feynman Diagrams helped make sense of quantum electrodynamics, a theory that “attempted to calculate the probability of all possible outcomes of particle interactions,” the video explains. Among the theory’s problems was the writing of “equations meant keeping track of all interactions, including virtual ones, a grueling, hopeless exercise for even the most organized and patient physicist.”

Using his touch for the relatable, Feynman drew his first diagrams in 1948. They remain, wrote Nobel Prize-winning physicist Frank Wilczek, “a treasured asset in physics because they often provide good approximations to reality. They help us bring our powers of visual imagination to bear on worlds we can’t actually see.” Learn more about Feynman Diagrams in the video above and at Holmnis’ article in Quanta here.

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

Pussy Riot’s Nadya Tolokonnikova Tells Protestors What to Do–and Not Do–If Arrested by Authoritarian Police

Note: If the subtitles don’t play automatically, please click the “cc” at the bottom of the video.

Oligarchic regimes built on corruption and naked self-interest don’t typically exhibit much in the way of creativity when responding to crises of legitimacy. The most recent challenge to the oligarchic rule of Vladimir Putin, for example, after the attempted assassination and jailing of his rival, anti-corruption activist Alexey Navalny, revealed “the regime’s utter lack of imagination and inability to plan ahead,” writes Masha Gessen at The New Yorker, and seems to promise an opening for a revolutionary movement.

Perhaps it’s safer to say, Joshua Yaffa writes, “that Russian politics are merely entering the beginning of a protracted new phase,” that will involve more large, coordinated mass protests against the “perceived impunity and lawlessness of Putin’s system,” such as happened all over the country in recent days: “In St. Petersburg, a sizable crowd blocked Nevsky Prospekt, the city’s main thoroughfare. Several thousand gathered in Novosibirsk, the largest city in Siberia. Even in Yakutsk, a faraway regional capital, where the day’s temperatures reached minus fifty-eight degrees Fahrenheit, a number of people came out to the central square.”

Footage from the protests “shows activists pelting Russian riot police and vehicles with snowballs,” Dazed reports. Massive, in-real-life protests have been organized and supported by online activists on Tik Tok, YouTube, and other social media sites, where young people like viral teenager Neurolera share tips—such as pretending to be an indignant American—that might help protestors avoid arrest. In one video calling on young students to attend Saturday’s protests, a young woman holds a book, and captions “explain how she is reading about how citizens’ rights are guaranteed,” writes Brendan Cole at Newsweek. “But wait!” she says in one caption, “In Russia things happen differently.”

Russian citizens, and especially young activists, do not walk into protest situations unprepared for arrest and detention—particularly those who follow longtime trouble-makers Pussy Riot, famous for staging flamboyant anti-Putin protests and getting arrested. In the video at the top, the band/activist collective’s Nadya Tolokonnikova explains “how to behave when you’re arrested.” Detention “is an unpleasant experience,” she says, but it need not “end up being such a traumatic experience.” One must conquer fear with knowledge. During her first arrest, “I was scared because I felt that the police officers held an enormous power over me. That’s not true.”

The English translation seems inexact and many of the intricacies of Russian law will not translate to other national contexts. Woven throughout the video, however, are generally prudent tips—like not adding criminal charges by attacking police during arrest. Last year, the group distributed anti-surveillance make-up tips also useful to activists everywhere. The viral spread of videos like Pussy Riot’s and Neurolera’s tutorial show us a worldwide desire for youthful hope and determination in the face of brutal realities. Yaffa describes the “scenes of police employing brute force” that filled his Russian-language social media during the protests:

In one such video, from St. Petersburg, a woman confronts a column of riot policemen dragging a protester by his arms and asks, “Why are you arresting him?” One of the police officers kicks her in the chest, knocking her to the ground. Watching these scenes, I couldn’t help but think of Belarus, where months of street protests against the rule of Alexander Lukashenka have been marked by brutality and torture by the security forces, and a remarkable willingness from protesters to fight back against riot police, at times forcing them to retreat or abandon making an arrest.

These images do not spread so readily in English-language media, perhaps giving a superficial impression that the current anti-Putin, pro-Navalny movement is a new, young online phenomenon, rather than the continuation of a battle-hardened resistance to twenty years of misrule. “Throwing the book at Navalny could spark protests of undetermined strength and longevity,” Yaffa argues, from which mass movements around the world draw inspiration for years to come.

via Dazed

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

Rick Steves’ Europe: Binge Watch 9 Seasons of America’s Favorite Traveler Free Online

“People who are addicted to European travel, this is kind of a frustrating time for them,” says Rick Steves in a podcast interview with The New York Times‘ Sam Anderson from this past spring. He should know: since becoming a professional travel guide and educator in the late 1970s, Steves has harnessed his own European travel addiction to build a business empire. To his fellow Europhiles — and especially his fellow Europhile but monoglot Americans making their first leap across the Atlantic — Steves has sold a great many classes, tours, guidebooks, money belts, and neck pillows. Over the past three decades, almost everyone who’s got to know him has done so through his travel shows on public television, especially Rick Steves’ Europe.

“Steves is a joyful and jaunty host, all eager-beaver smiles and expressive head tilts,” writes Anderson of the show, whose star “gushes poetically about England’s Lake District (‘a lush land steeped in a rich brew of history, culture and nature’) and Erfurt, Germany (‘this half-timbered medieval town with a shallow river gurgling through its center’) and Istanbul (‘this sprawling metropolis on the Bosporus’) and Lisbon (‘like San Francisco, but older and grittier and less expensive’).”

In recent years, seasons of Rick Steves’ Europe have become free to watch on Youtube. The nine full seasons now available also include “Germany’s Romantic Rhine“; Normandy, “War-Torn Yet Full of Life“; “Feisty and Poetic” North Wales; “Little Europe: Five Micro-Countries“; Basque country; and The Best of Slovenia.

As well known for his practical-mindedness as he is for his cheerfulness, Steves has also produced such special broadcasts as a threepart series on the travel skills necessary to cross huge swaths of Europe safely and enjoyably. Given the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, however, it will be a while before any of us can once again put our travel skills to the test. “This virus can stop our travel plans, but it cannot stop our travel dreams,” Steves declares on the podcast with Anderson, leading into the announcement of a new game: Rick Steves’ Europe Bingo, “where the cards have all of the little goofy clichés that show up in almost every one of my shows,” from “Rick visits a church” and “Rick enjoys a local drink” to signature lines like “Oh, baby!” and “Keep on travelin’.”

“You can turn it into a drinking game if you want,” Steves notes. And indeed, with or without the aid of alcohol, there are much worse ways for travelers to pass the remainder of the pandemic than with an extended binge-watch of Rick Steves’ Europe, whose seasons are organized into playlists below:

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletterBooks on Cities, the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall, on Facebook, or on Instagram.

A 400-Year-Old Ring that Unfolds to Track the Movements of the Heavens

Rings with discreet dual purpose have been in use since before the common era, when Hannibal, facing extradition, allegedly ingested the poison he kept secreted behind a gemstone on his finger. (More recently, poison rings gave rise to a popular Game of Thrones fan theory…)

Victorians prevented their most closely kept secrets—illicit love letters, perhaps? Last wills and testaments?—from falling into the wrong hands by wearing the keys to the boxes containing these items concealed in signet rings and other statement-type pieces.

A tiny concealed blade could be lethal on the finger of a skilled (and no doubt, beautiful) assassin. These days, they might be used to collect a bit of one’s attacker’s DNA.

Enter the fictional world of James Bond, and you’ll find a number of handy dandy spy rings including one that doubles as a camera, and another capable of shattering bulletproof glass with a single twist.

Armillary sphere rings like the ones in the British Museum’s collection and the Swedish Historical Museum (top) serve a more benign purpose. Folded together, the two-part outer hoop and three interior hoops give the illusion of a simple gold band. Slipped off the wearer’s finger, they can fan out into a physical model of celestial longitude and latitude.

Art historian Jessica Stewart writes that in the 17th century, rings such as the above specimen were “used by astronomers to study and make calculations. These pieces of jewelry were considered tokens of knowledge. Inscriptions or zodiac symbols were often used as decorative elements on the bands.”

The armillary sphere rings in the British Museum’s collection are made of a soft high alloy gold.

Jewelry-loving modern astronomers seeking an old school finger-based calculation tool that really works can order armillary sphere rings from Brooklyn-based designer Black Adept.

via My Modern Met

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty: A Free Course from the University of Pennsylvania

Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty. Who could use a course on resilience these days? To get you through this winter of discontent, the University of Pennsylvania has created a free version of Dr. Karen Reivich’s “Resilience Skills” course. (It’s part of the Foundations of Positive Psychology Specialization offered through Coursera.) This course teaches students to 1.) understand the protective factors that make one resilient, 2.) make use of non-cognitive strategies that decrease anxiety, 3.) recognize thinking traps and how they undercut resilience, and 4.) create a buffer of positivity that boosts resilience in stressful situations.

The course technically runs four weeks, but it can be binge-watched at whatever rate you like. The course draws on the instructor’s book, The Resilience Factor: 7 Keys to Finding Your Inner Strength and Overcoming Life’s Hurdles. To take the course for free, select the “Audit” option during the registration process.

Resilience Skills in a Time of Uncertainty will be added to our collection, 1,500 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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Cocktails with a Curator: The Frick Pairs Weekly Art History Lectures with Cocktail Recipes

Once upon a time, not so long ago, First Fridays at the Frick were a gracious way for New Yorkers to kick off the weekend. Admission was waived, participants could take part in open sketching sessions or enjoy live performance, and curators were on hand to give mini lectures on the significance and historical context of certain prized paintings in the collection.

Rather than pull the plug entirely when the museum closed due to the pandemic, the Frick sought to preserve the spirit of this longstanding tradition with weekly episodes of Cocktails with a Curator, matching each selection with recipes for make-at-home themed drinks, with or without alcohol.

Much as we miss these communal live events, there’s something to be said for enjoying these wildly entertaining, educational mini-lectures from the comfort of one’s own couch, drink in hand, no need to crane past other visitors for a view, or worry that one might keel over from locking one’s knees too long.

Deputy Director and Peter Jay Sharp Chief Curator Xavier F. Salomon makes for an especially engaging host. His coverage of James McNeill Whistler’s Symphony in Flesh Color and Pink: Portrait of Mrs. Frances Leyland, above, touches on the artist’s affinity for butterflies, music, Japanese themes and building his own frames.

But the greatest delight is Salomon’s talent for imbuing 19th-century art world gossip with a sense of immediacy.

Sip a sake highball (or a virgin sangria-style refresher of plum juice and mint) and chew on the true nature of the artist’s relationship with his shipping magnate patron’s wife.

Sake Highball
sake (of your choice)
club soda (as much/little as needed)
lots of ice

Alternative Mocktail
plum juice

cut orange, lemon and apple (sangria style)
mint leaves
sugar (as needed)

Salomon returns to consider one of the Frick’s most iconic holdings, François Boucher’s rococo Four Seasons.

Commissioned in 1755 to serve as over-door decorations for King Louis XV’s mistress Madame de Pompadour, they now reside in the Frick’s ornate Boucher Room.

Salomon draws comparisons to another swooning Frick favorite, Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s series Progress of Love. While the romantic nature of these works is hardly a secret, Salomon is able to speak to the erotic significance of dolphins, grapes, and tiny 18th-century shepherdess bonnets.

Those who are respecting COVID protocols by courting outdoors this winter will welcome Salomon’s thoughts on Winter’s central figure, a coquette riding in a sleigh driven by a well-bundled man in Tartar dress:

Her hands may be warmed by a muff, but her upper body is completely exposed. It’s a combination of luxury and seduction typical of Boucher, all treated in a fanciful, even humorous manner.

Also, is it just us, or is Curator Salomon taking the opportunity to enjoy his Proust-inspired Time Regained cocktail in a kimono? (A perk of the virtual office…)

Time Regained
2 oz. Scotch whisky
0.75 oz. Dry vermouth
0.5 oz. Pisco
0.25 oz. Jasmine tea syrup (equal parts of jasmine tea and sugar)

Alternative Mocktail
Cold jasmine tea
One spoonful of golden syrup
Top with tonic water

Salomon hands hosting duties to colleague Aimee Ng for Vermeer’s Mistress and Maid, one of three works by the Dutch Master in the Frick’s collection.

Here the drama is less explicitly informed by the boudoir, though there’s a big reveal around the 10 minute mark, thanks to recent advances in infrared reflectography and some well-coordinated art sleuthing.

As to the contents of the message the maid proffers her ermine trimmed mistress, we’ll never know, although those of us with ready access to the Dutch spirit genever can have fun speculating over a glass of Genever Brûlée.

Genever Brûlée
2 oz genever
1 teaspoon brown sugar
A few dashes of classic bitters
A dash of orange bitters
A splash of sparkling water
Garnished with a caramelized orange slice

Alternative Mocktail

Juice of half an orange
2 dashes orange blossom water
A splash of sparkling water
Garnished with a caramelized orange slice

To explore a playlist of every Cocktails with a Curator episode, covering such notable works as Velázquez’s King Philip IV of SpainClaude Monet’s Vétheuil in Winter, and Hans Holbein’s Sir Thomas More, click here.

To read more in-depth coverage of each episode’s featured artwork, along with its cocktail and mocktail recipes, click here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. She most recently appeared as a French Canadian bear who travels to New York City in search of food and meaning in Greg Kotis’ short film, L’Ourse.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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