Reflections on Martin Luther King day

Science investigates; religion interprets. Science gives man knowledge, which is power; religion gives man wisdom, which is control. Science deals mainly with facts; religion deals mainly with values. The two are not rivals. physics?

Richard Feynman was a white guy who won a Nobel prize in 1965 for his theory of Quantum Electrodynamics. He used the chance to give a lecture to reflect on the twisted path he took to arrive at his theory of QED, and concludes...

Many different physical ideas can describe the same physical reality. Thus, classical electrodynamics can be described by a field view, or an action at a distance view, etc. Originally, Maxwell filled space with idler wheels, and Faraday with fields lines, but somehow the Maxwell equations themselves are pristine and independent of the elaboration of words attempting a physical description. The only true physical description is that describing the experimental meaning of the quantities in the equation - or better, the way the equations are to be used in describing experimental observations. This being the case perhaps the best way to proceed is to try to guess equations, and disregard physical models or descriptions. For example, McCullough guessed the correct equations for light propagation in a crystal long before his colleagues using elastic models could make head or tail of the phenomena, or again, Dirac obtained his equation for the description of the electron by an almost purely mathematical proposition. A simple physical view by which all the contents of this equation can be seen is still lacking.

Therefore, I think equation guessing might be the best method to proceed to obtain the laws for the part of physics which is presently unknown. Yet, when I was much younger, I tried this equation guessing and I have seen many students try this, but it is very easy to go off in wildly incorrect and impossible directions. I think the problem is not to find the best or most efficient method to proceed to a discovery, but to find any method at all. Physical reasoning does help some people to generate suggestions as to how the unknown may be related to the known. Theories of the known, which are described by different physical ideas may be equivalent in all their predictions and are hence scientifically indistinguishable. However, they are not psychologically identical when trying to move from that base into the unknown. For different views suggest different kinds of modifications which might be made and hence are not equivalent in the hypotheses one generates from them in ones attempt to understand what is not yet understood. I, therefore, think that a good theoretical physicist today might find it useful to have a wide range of physical viewp\oints and mathematical expressions of the same theory (for example, of quantum electrodynamics) available to him. This may be asking too much of one man. Then new students should as a class have this. If every individual student follows the same current fashion in expressing and thinking about electrodynamics or field theory, then the variety of hypotheses being generated to understand strong interactions, say, is limited. Perhaps rightly so, for possibly the chance is high that the truth lies in the fashionable direction. But, on the off-chance that it is in another direction - a direction obvious from an unfashionable view of field theory - who will find it? Only someone who has sacrificed himself by teaching himself quantum electrodynamics from a peculiar and unusual p\oint of view; one that he may have to invent for himself. I say sacrificed himself because he most likely will get nothing from it, because the truth may lie in another direction, perhaps even the fashionable one.

But, if my own experience is any guide, the sacrifice is really not great because if the peculiar viewp\oint taken is truly experimentally equivalent to the usual in the realm of the known there is always a range of applications and problems in this realm for which the special viewpoint gives one a special power and clarity of thought, which is valuable in itself. Furthermore, in the search for new laws, you always have the psychological excitement of feeling that possibly nobody has yet thought of the crazy possibility you are looking at right now.