What’s that?, you say. Why, it’s a theory of physics known as quantum electrodynamics, or in short, QED.
It’s also a book I have read recently. And by recently, I mean today. The book is by Richard Feynman, of course. Its full title is QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Andrew Widener gave me it as a birthday present, but other than its being a book on physics by Feynman, I didn’t really know what to expect from it. So, I decided to read it. And I found it so compelling that I read it in one day (though it wasn’t really a long book).
Feynman is by no means a modest author. But he has every reason not to be modest. QED is a collection of four lectures for the lay audience and explains a theory—quantum electrodynamics—that is super-accurate, super-applicable, and super-amazing. It doesn’t explain QED mathematically. That is for third-year grad students, he asserts. Instead, Feynman does what he excels at doing—and there are many things in which he excels—serving as an extraordinary popularizer of physics. That isn’t to say that he didn’t actually do physics, for those of you who are unfamiliar with him and haven’t looked him up by this point. He is a Nobel Laureate, which he briefly (and modestly) alludes to in the book when he nonchalantly tosses in a solution to a calculation problem found independently by himself and two others, and he then inserts, in parentheses, “we got prizes for that.”
In this blog post, I’m not sure how to write a response to this book. Should I attempt to summarize what Feynman brilliantly explained, or share personal thoughts? Since Feynman already wrote QED for the nontechnical reader, such as myself, I will focus on the latter idea.
I start by pointing out the obvious, namely, it was no coincidence that Andrew decided to give me this book. I’ve always been a math/science person, whatever that means, and especially into physics. Well, sort of. I would definitely have to explain myself a little more. You see, physics in school—high school, that is—is a rather dull subject. The curriculum is geared towards the memorization of formulas and definitions, the calculation of unknown quantities in perfect, ideal situations, and, dare I say, the performance of superficial experiments whose results we (should) already know, and in which we only try to verify the already-known laws of physics. For me, at least, that contains little fun. On the other hand, the class is great, for we have an awesome teacher with great understanding for both the subject and his students, plus a quirky an interesting sense of humor (see “The Physics Teacher” webcomic). But, as to the subject, I digress.
It seems that we do very little “real science.” We learn in our history classes that the great scientists used imagination, hard work, as well as sheer genius to advance the knowledge and understanding of the day. But in high school physics, there is little room for imagination. Sure, in our homework we might come across a hypothetical projectile motion problem that requires the application of five different kinematic formulas. But is that really physics? Is that how Newton, or Einstein, or Feynman unlocked the laws of Nature?
That objection I have—and no doubt many of you may have—is why I read math/science outside of school for fun. QED was very fun. Feynman presents the concepts of the theory so elegantly that the basics of quantum electrodynamics (what a horrendous name!) are actually by no means difficult to understand. And he didn’t just say, we know this, we know that, here’s a formula, etc. He leads the reader on a journey, a journey of inquiry and discovery. He is patient, not afraid to take time to draw analogies, answer any reader concerns, or qualify his statements. He makes sure to explain precisely what is is known and what is unknown—and how physicists, including himself, are trying to turn that unknown into the known.