By Dylan Adlard (L6, S)
Richard Feynman was a brilliant and charismatic physicist who won the Nobel Prize for his contribution to the theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), a quantum field theory that deals with light and its interaction with charged matter.
On Tuesday 22 September at a Science Evening we had the opportunity to watch his introductory lecture, which was given at the Douglas Robb Memorial Lecture at the University of Auckland in 1979, the video of which is now freely available for streaming through the Vega Trust. Feynman had a very engaging manner, and his lecture was full of humour, particularly when talking about Ernest Rutherford, who of course was born in New Zealand. Quantum Electrodynamics turned out to be a logical progression of the work of James Maxwell, Rutherford, Werner Heisenberg and Paul Dirac, and primarily relates to the quantum interaction of electrons and light.
The problem he so engagingly described was the fact that in doing calculations the scientists kept getting infinity in the results. It took over twenty years by Feynman, Swinger and Tomonaga to verify that the original calculations were pretty well on track, and just needed minor corrections and a different way of looking at the problem. QED since has been proven to be an extremely accurate theory and there is no measurable variance between experimental observation and the theory. It explains a huge range of physical phenomena to extraordinary precision.
Feynman is one of the true giants of physics, and ranks up there with Newton, Maxwell and Einstein in helping to elucidate the underlying laws of physics, without the assistance of modern tools like the Large Hadron Collider. His capability, like theirs, was based upon critically applying his fine mind to observations of nature. Feynman clearly loved his work, and relished the opportunity to share it with a wider audience. His enthusiasm still resonates. "The lecture was mind blowing, and such events reaffirm my choice of physics as a subject at A Level", enthused Low Chwen Leik. "It has helped me view the world in a different way.” Sam Mendis was succinct: “Mind Blowing!”
Mr Cooper was evidently pleased with the positive reaction. “My goal is to fascinate and intrigue the best physicists at Cheltenham College,” he reflected. "Such content, as the one I showed tonight, is accessible to everyone.” Einstein supposedly said, “You only understand something if you can explain it to your grandmother” – a lesson Feynman had obviously taken to heart.