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 Quantahere.
From the mid-19th century through WWI, these machines were at the forefront of gym culture. Their function is extremely similar to modern strength training equipment, but their design exudes a dashing steampunk flair.
If the thing that’s going to help us work off all this sourdough weight is going to wind up colonizing half our apartment, we want something that will go with our maximalist thrift store aesthetic.
We might even start working out in floor length skirts and three piece suits in homage to Zander’s original devotees.
His 27 machines addressed abs, arms, adductors—all the greatest hits—using weights and levers to strengthen muscles through progressive exertion and resistance. Specially trained assistants were on hand to adjust the weights, a luxury that our modern world has seen fit to phase out.
Just as 21st-century fitness centers position themselves as lifesavers of those who spend the bulk of the day hunched in front of a computer, Zander’s inventions targeted sedentary office workers.
The industrial society that created this new breed of laborer also ensured that the Swedish doctor’s contraptions would garner accolades and attention. They were already a hit in their land of origin when they took a gold medal at Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition.
The flagship Therapeutic Zander Institute in Stockholm expanded, with branches in London and New York City.
The New York Times described the latter as giving the “uninitiated observer an impression of a carefully devised torture chamber more than of a doctor’s office or a gymnasium, both of which functions the institute, to a certain degree, fills.”
Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine. This month, she appearsas 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.
Before our eyes, Japanese artist Kenichi Kanazawa creates crisp shapes and geometric patterns with no special tools but sand and sound, the kind of work that at first looks expressly designed to go viral on social media. But he’s been at it much longer than that: “Originally a sculptor by trade,” according to Spoon & Tamago’s Johnny Waldman, “Kanazawa began working with steel and sound in 1987 after collaborating with the late sound artist Hiroshi Yoshimura. Today, his work primarily involves elements like sound, vibration and heat: making the invisible, visible.” Or in other words, using what critic and music Ted Gioia calls, in a tweet of one of Kanazawa’s short tabletop performances, “the power of sound to create order out of chaos.”
Kanazawa doesn’t use just any old tables, but special ones made of steel, the better to resonate when he taps and strokes them with his variety of mallets. Nor does he use just any old sand, opting instead for either a pure white — for maximum visual starkness against the black steel — or a set of bright colors, as in the video at the top of the post.
Whatever its place on the spectrum, the stuff seems to rearrange itself across the surface in response to the tones created by the artist. The striking precision of the effects produced by this interaction of sand, steel, and sound gets viewers wondering what, scientifically, is going on here. The underlying set of phenomena has a name: cymatics, coined in the 1960s by a Swiss doctor named Hans Jenny.
In his book Healing Songs, Gioia calls Jenny’s study of cymatics “the most impressive and rigorous inquiry yet made into the nature of vibrations and their impact on physical objects of various sorts.” In such a medium sensitive to sonic vibrations, Jenny himself writes, “a pattern appears to take shape before the eye and, as long as the sound is spoken, to behave like something alive.” This also fairly describes Kanazawa’s dancing sand, whether seen from up close or at a distance. Physically speaking, sound is, of course, a form of vibration, which is itself a form of motion. But for an observer like Jenny — an adherent of esoteric philosopher Rudolf Steiner’s anthroposophy, a school of thought oriented toward the observation of the spiritual world through sensory experience — Kanazawa’s work would surely have, as it were, much deeper resonances.
The train passes over a broad road traveled mostly by pedestrians.
Note the absence of cars, traffic lights, and signage, as well as the proliferation of greenery, animals, and space between houses.
The trip on the right was taken much more recently, shortly after the railway began upgrading its fleet to cars with cushioned seats, air conditioning, information displays, LED lighting, increased access for people with disabilities and regenerative brakes.
An extended version at the bottom of this page provides a glimpse of the control panel inside the driver’s booth.
There are some changes visible beyond the windshield, too.
Now, cars, buses, and trucks dominate the road.
A large monument seems to have disappeared at the 2:34 mark, along with the plaza it once occupied.
Fieldstone walls and 19th-century architectural flourishes have been replaced with bland cement.
There’s been a lot of building—and rebuilding. 40% of Wuppertal’s buildings were destroyed by Allied bombing in WWII.
Although Wuppertal is still the greenest city in Germany, with access to public parks and woodland paths never more than a ten-minute walk away, the views across the Wupper river to the right are decidedly less expansive.
For the Schwebebahn’s first riders at the turn of the 20th century, these vistas along the eight-mile route must have been a revelation. Many of them would have ridden trains and elevators, but the unobstructed, straight-down views from the suspended monorail would have been novel, if not terrifying.
The bridge structures appear to have changed little over the last 120 years, despite several safety upgrades.
Those steampunk silhouettes are a testament to the planning—and expense—that resulted in this unique mass transit system, whose origin story is summarized by Elmar Thyen, head of Schwebebahn’s Corporate Communications and Strategic Marketing:
We had a situation with a very rich city, and very rich citizens who were eager to be socially active. They said, ‘Which space is publicly owned so we don’t have to go over private land?… It might make sense to have an elevated railway over the river.’
In the end, this is what the merchants wanted. They wanted the emperor to come and say, ‘This is cool, this is innovative: high tech, and still Prussian.’
At present, the suspension railway is only operating on the weekends, with a return to regular service anticipated for August 2021. Face masks are required. Tickets are still just a few bucks.
No matter how little we know of the Hindu religion, a line from one of its holy scriptures lives within us all: “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” This is one facet of the legacy of J. Robert Oppenheimer, an American theoretical physicist who left an outsized mark on history. For his crucial role in the Manhattan Project that during World War II produced the first nuclear weapons, he’s now remembered as the”father of the atomic bomb.” He secured that title on July 16, 1945, the day of the test in the New Mexican desert that proved these experimental weapons actually work — that is, they could wreak a kind of destruction previously only seen in visions of the end of the world.
“We knew the world would not be the same,” Oppenheimer remembered in 1965. “A few people laughed, a few people cried. Most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad Gita; Vishnu is trying to persuade the Prince that he should do his duty and, to impress him, takes on his multi-armed form and says, ‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'” The translation’s grammatical archaism made it even more powerful, resonating with lines in Tennyson (“I am become a name, for always roaming with a hungry heart”), Shakespeare (“I am come to know your pleasure”), and the Bible (“I am come a light into the world, that whosoever believeth on me should not abide in darkness”).
But what is death, as the Gita sees it? In an interview with Wired, Sanskrit scholar Stephen Thompson explains that, in the original, the word that Oppenheimer speaks as “death” refers to “literally the world-destroying time.” This means that “irrespective of what Arjuna does” — Arjuna being the aforementioned prince, the narrative’s protagonist — everything is in the hands of the divine.” Oppenheimer would have learned all this while teaching in the 1930s at Berkeley, where he learned Sanskrit and read the Gita in the original. This created in him, said his colleague Isidor Rabi, “a feeling of mystery of the universe that surrounded him like a fog.”
The necessity of the United States’ subsequent dropping of not one but two atomic bombs on Japan, examined in the 1965 documentary The Decision to Drop the Bomb, remains a matter of debate. Oppenheimer went on to oppose nuclear weapons, describing himself to an appalled President Harry Truman as having “blood on my hands.” But in developing them, could he have simply seen himself as a modern Prince Arjuna? “It has been argued by scholars,” writes the Economic Times‘ Mayank Chhaya, “that Oppenheimer’s approach to the atomic bomb was that of doing his duty as part of his dharma as prescribed in the Gita.” He knew, to quote another line from that scripture brought to mind by the nuclear explosion, that “if the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst into the sky that would be like the splendor of the Mighty One” — and perhaps also that splendor and wrath may be one.
In our time, few branches of science have taken as much public abuse as quantum physics, the study of how things behave at the atomic scale. It’s not so much that people dislike the subject as they see fit to draft it in support of any given notion: quantum physics, one hears, proves that we have free will, or that Buddhist wisdom is true, or that there is an afterlife, or that nothing really exists. Those claims may or may not be true, but they do not help us at all to understand what quantum physics actually is. For that we’ll want to turn to Dominic Walliman, a Youtuber whose channel Domain of Science features clear visual explanations of scientific fields including physics, chemistry, mathematics, as well as the whole domain of science itself — and who also, as luck would have it, is a quantum physics PhD.
With his knowledge of the field, and his modesty as far as what can be definitively said about it, Wallman has designed a map of quantum physics, available for purchase at his web site. In the video above he takes us on a guided tour through the realms into which he has divided up and arranged his subject, beginning with the “pre-quantum mysteries,” inquiries into which led to its foundation.
From there he continues on to the foundations of quantum physics, a territory that includes such potentially familiar landmarks as particle-wave duality, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle, and the Schrödinger equation — though not yet his cat, another favorite quantum-physics reference among those who don’t know much about quantum physics.
Alas, as c explains in the subsequent “quantum phenomena” section, Schrödinger’s cat is “not very helpful, because it was originally designed to show how absurd quantum mechanics seems, as cats can’t be alive and dead at the same time.” But then, this is a field that proceeds from absurdity, or at least from the fact that its observations at first made no sense by the traditional laws of physics. There follow forays into quantum technology (lasers, solar panels, MRI machines), quantum information (computing, cryptography, the prospect teleportation), and a variety of subfields including condensed matter physics, quantum biology, and quantum chemistry. Though detailed enough to require more than one viewing, Walliman’s map also makes clear how much of quantum physics remains unexplored — and most encouragingly of all, leaves off its supposed philosophical, or existential implications. You can watch Walliman’s other introduction to Quantum Physics below.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include 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.
At the age of twelve, he followed his own line of reasoning to find a proof of the Pythagorean Theorem. At thirteen he read Kant, just for the fun of it. And before he was fifteen he had taught himself differential and integral calculus.
But while the young Einstein was engrossed in intellectual pursuits, he didn’t much care for school. He hated rote learning and despised authoritarian schoolmasters. His sense of intellectual superiority was resented by his teachers.
At the Gymnasium a teacher once said to him that he, the teacher, would be much happier if the boy were not in his class. Einstein replied that he had done nothing wrong. The teacher answered, “Yes, that is true. But you sit there in the back row and smile, and that violates the feeling of respect that a teacher needs from his class.”
The same teacher famously said that Einstein “would never get anywhere in life.”
What bothered Einstein most about the Luitpold was its oppressive atmosphere. His sister Maja would later write:
“The military tone of the school, the systematic training in the worship of authority that was supposed to accustom pupils at an early age to military discipline, was also particularly unpleasant for the boy. He contemplated with dread that not-too-distant moment when he will have to don a soldier’s uniform in order to fulfill his military obligations.”
When he was sixteen, Einstein’s parents moved to Italy to pursue a business venture. They told him to stay behind and finish school. But Einstein was desperate to join them in Italy before his seventeenth birthday. “According to the German citizenship laws,” Maja explained, “a male citizen must not emigrate after his completed sixteenth year; otherwise, if he fails to report for military service, he is declared a deserter.”
So Einstein found a way to get a doctor’s permission to withdraw from the school on the pretext of “mental exhaustion,” and fled to Italy without a diploma. Years later, in 1944, during the final days of World War II, the Luitpold Gymnasium was obliterated by Allied bombing. So we don’t have a record of Einstein’s grades there. But there is record of a principal at the school looking up Einstein’s grades in 1929 to fact check a press report that Einstein had been a very bad student. Walter Sullivan writes about it in a 1984 piece in The New York Times:
With 1 as the highest grade and 6 the lowest, the principal reported, Einstein’s marks in Greek, Latin and mathematics oscillated between 1 and 2 until, toward the end, he invariably scored 1 in math.
After he dropped out, Einstein’s family enlisted a well-connected friend to persuade the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, or ETH, to let him take the entrance exam, even though he was only sixteen years old and had not graduated from high school. He scored brilliantly in physics and math, but poorly in other areas. The director of the ETH suggested he finish preparatory school in the town of Aarau, in the Swiss canton of Aargau. A diploma from the cantonal school would guarantee Einstein admission to the ETH.
At Aarau, Einstein was pleasantly surprised to find a liberal atmosphere in which independent thought was encouraged. “When compared to six years’ schooling at a German authoritarian gymnasium,” he later said, “it made me clearly realize how much superior an education based on free action and personal responsibility is to one relying on outward authority.”
In Einstein’s first semester at Aarau, the school still used the old method of scoring from 1 to 6, with 1 as the highest grade. In the second semester the system was reversed, with 6 becoming the highest grade. Barry R. Parker talks about Einstein’s first-semester grades in his book, Einstein: The Passions of a Scientist:
His grades over the first few months were: German, 2-3; French, 3-4; history, 1-2; mathematics, 1; physics, 1-2; natural history, 2-3; chemistry, 2-3; drawing, 2-3; and violin, 1. (The range is 1 to 6, with 1 being the highest.) Although none of the grades, with the exception of French, were considered poor, some of them were only average.
The school headmaster, Jost Winteler, who had welcomed Einstein into his home as a boarder and had become something of a surrogate father to him during his time at Aarau, was concerned that a young man as obviously brilliant as Albert was receiving average grades in so many courses. At Christmas in 1895, he mailed a report card to Einstein’s parents. Hermann Einstein replied with warm thanks, but said he was not too worried. As Parker writes, Einstein’s father said he was used to seeing a few “not-so-good grades along with very good ones.”
In the next semester Einstein’s grades improved, but were still mixed. As Toby Hendy of the Youtube channel Tibees shows in the video above, Einstein’s final grades were excellent in math and physics, but closer to average in other areas.
Einstein’s uneven academic performance continued at the ETH, as Hendy shows. By the third year his relationship with the head of the physics department, Heinrich Weber, began to deteriorate. Weber was offended by the young man’s arrogance. “You’re a clever boy, Einstein,” said Weber. “An extremely clever boy. But you have one great fault. You’ll never allow yourself to be told anything.” Einstein was particularly frustrated that Weber refused to teach the groundbreaking electromagnetic theory of James Clerk Maxwell. He began spending less time in the classroom and more time reading up on current physics at home and in the cafes of Zurich.
Einstein increasingly focused his attention on physics, and neglected mathematics. He came to regret this. “It was not clear to me as a student,” he later said, “that a more profound knowledge of the basic principles of physics was tied up with the most intricate mathematical methods.”
Einstein’s classmate Marcel Grossmann helped him by sharing his notes from the math lectures Einstein had skipped. When Einstein graduated, his conflict with Weber cost him the teaching job he had expected to receive. Grossmann eventually came to Einstein’s rescue again, urging his father to help him secure a well-paid job as a clerk in the Swiss patent office. Many years later, when Grossmann died, Einstein wrote a letter to his widow that conveyed not only his sadness at an old friend’s death, but also his bittersweet memories of life as a college student:
“Our days together come back to me. He a model student; I untidy and a daydreamer. He on excellent terms with the teachers and grasping everything easily; I aloof and discontented, not very popular. But we were good friends and our conversations over iced coffee at the Metropol every few weeks belong among my nicest memories.”
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.
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