Wednesday, May 30, 2018

Lesser minds hide from Richard Feynman in safe spaces

Two weeks ago, we commemorated 100th birthday of Richard Feynman.

N*t Even Wr*ng mostly focuses on criticisms and "bad lessons" to draw from Feynman's life.

First, Peter W*it agrees with Clifford Johnson that "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman" is a user manual for "how to be a jerk". Well, I don't think so. At almost all times, Feynman behaved well towards the people around him – those that have at least slightly deserved it. Joseph Conlon joins Johnson and W*it as the third politically correct fanatic:
And while on this topic, the anecdotes in the Feynman books about his visits to strip clubs and the like read odd on first reading and even more so today. Powerful man tells stories about how he got laid; not a genre that has aged well.
On the contrary, comrade Conlon. It's a constant fact of Nature that in well-functioning societies (or even ecosystems), men who have achieved something and who stand for something get laid, and often after some amusing and creative events. These stories of Feynman have aged very well; it is your society, comrade Conlon, which nurtures lots of MeToo-style perversions, lies, and hypocrisies that has been fudged up.

N*t Even Wr*ng praises the "disrespect for authority" and "a total aversion to bullšit" – which is strange indeed given the fact that the main purpose of the whole N*t Even Wr*ng website is to make thousands of readers mindlessly worship scumbags such as Mr W*it himself who have emitted nothing else than bullšit in their lives as if they were authorities, not just the pieces of šit that they are.

But the "bad lessons" that we shouldn't draw – according to Mr W*it and those scumbags who think it's a good idea to listen to him – are "his hostility to abstract math" and "trying to climb Mont Blanc barefoot". Concerning the Mont Blanc metaphor, it was invented by Sidney Coleman who has said (and that comment was repeated by John Preskill at a recent event) that Feynman had a pleasure to climb Mont Blanc just to show that it can be done – and that he can do it.

Coleman has said that "Dick could get away with a lot because he was so goddamn smart, he really could climb Mont Blanc barefoot." Coleman also got away with a lot, even with things one didn't need to be smart to do them, e.g. with smoking in the classroom.

Well, the fact that he could get away with some things depended not just on Feynman but also on the society in which he lived. It was a society that has valued the actual skills and achievements – including the climbing Mont Blanc barefoot. These days, we're much closer to a society driven by politically correct spiritual midgets of W*it's or Conlon's or MeToo's type.

Yesterday, when I was in an Albert supermarket, a 10-year-old girl was just riding her scoobike in the whole shop – maybe the speed of up to 10 miles per hour. I found it pretty cool. Obviously, I didn't think it was threatening or harmful to me or someone I cared about. But at the end, after she has gotten out of the shopping area with her scoobike, I couldn't really avoid a contact with her. I didn't like the complete indifference of the Czechs, either, so I at least asked her whether she thought it was allowed to ride a scoobike there (I honestly don't know whether there are such laws anywhere). She answered "no" and unsuccessfully tried to invent an excuse. Maybe I made her invent a better excuse for the next time. ;-) She clearly seemed happy she encountered a man who has some understanding for joy involving some adrenaline – instead of a sourball who could create real trouble for her.

Riding a scoobike in a supermarket isn't as cool and impressive as climbing Mont Blanc barefoot but I still found it refreshing because the whole society almost resembles an obedient flock of sheep these days. As Bernd Felsche said, the whole Western civilization seems to resemble Pilsen during the Nazi occupation – most people are bribed by some relatively simple things but they outsource an increasing fraction of their freedom as they're being increasingly manipulated.

You know, what should matter are the achievements, and climbing Mont Blanc is a metaphor for achievements. If someone can make it barefoot, it is his own way to demonstrate his skills and have some extra joy from it – and that simply has to be tolerated, to say the least. In a healthy society, it is celebrated by some and this celebration has to be tolerated by the society.

It doesn't mean that everyone should try to climb Mont Blanc barefoot. Clearly, most people can't even dream about it. But that's really the point. A healthy society must tolerate rare things that only special people may achieve because these out-of-equilibrium deviations are damn important for the evolution of the civilization as a whole.

I have often (hundreds of times) been asked by students the following question (I exaggerate their language just a little bit, in order to make it clearer what I find crazy about it):
Please, professor, tell me which books I should memorize to be just like Feynman and whose aßes I should lick.
Well, this problem has no solution. If you need to be "led" by someone and you want to do progress by being subordinate to someone, by memorizing things, by licking aßes, and stuff like that, then you are simply nothing like Richard Feynman! It's that simple.

The very fact that Peter W*it and N*t Even Wr*ng impose internal rules that you can't climb Mont Blanc barefoot; and the very fact that they look for "lessons that all of them should draw" means that they're nothing like Feynman, they're lesser minds. But the fact that they're lesser minds doesn't mean that everyone else is a lesser mind as well.

On a more mundane level, people keep on asking about the right textbooks where they can learn X or Y. There are various books, some of them are better, some of them are worse, some of them are better for a certain purpose or for a certain kind of a reader or for a reader with a certain background. But whoever approaches the knowledge with some genuine curiosity and creativity, like Richard Feynman did, unavoidably learns lots of the things by himself – by reinventing or rediscovering the wheel.

I am sure that Feynman hasn't really reinvented "everything" he needed – although he may have sometimes liked when people imagined it was the case. Sometimes, he "reinvented" or "rediscovered" things by simply understanding what someone else was saying or writing. But there are lots of things that he did rediscover, and even though that stuff that he learned from others, he learned it at rather random places. The collection of sources from which he has learned was surely motley – and for obvious reasons, so was mine. There's no reason to expect top experts in an actual discipline to be experts in the literature written by others about the discipline. The genuine top experts are really above everyone else, or at least the bulk or its average, at least if we look at them from a fundamentally important perspective.

In most contexts, there are very good reasons why most professionals should learn things systematically, from the same textbooks and manuals, and avoid the reinvention of the wheel. It would surely be a giant waste of resources to expect everyone to reinvent the wheel or rediscover America (which is what Czechs use instead of the invention of the wheel). And the more conventional people who learn from standardized sources in prescribed ways may achieve big things, too. However, certain truly revolutionary advances are much likely to come from the people who do reinvent some wheels – and who find it natural to approach the wisdom in this way. Some of these people simply have the mental capacity to do really amazing things – and they often prefer the reinvention because they're so smart that this reinvention is easier for them than to listen to (and emulate) someone else. If you're really into this kind of business, then you're almost certainly not asking the questions "whom should I follow".

At the end, people of both kinds – and folks of many other types that are separated by similar criteria – are needed. Everyone who tries to impose the same personality and attitudes on everybody is doing a disservice to the mankind, especially if his own personality and attitude sucks.

Hostility towards mathematics

Some people, including IAS director and my once co-author Robbert Dijkgraaf, emphasize that Feynman was "very hostile towards abstract mathematics". Well, he was hostile towards the culture and the form of that community. But he was enthusiastic about actual deep mathematical structures and insights – the pure hormonal joy that is hiding inside the bureaucratic stuff that sometimes dominates within mathematics.

So I know lots of people who are much better at the knowledge of abstract mathematics than I am (and my level is comparable to Feynman's). And they have written some amazing papers that I only partly understand, but I couldn't quite join the business of mass writing papers that look the same – and they know it just like I do. On the other hand, I always need at least some evidence that their papers are more than almost pure bureaucracy. I need at least some evidence that some actual amount of hormonal joy is hiding inside the complicated and disciplined jargon and notation etc. I am primarily (or only) interested in the actual beef or hormonal joy inside, not the form, and so was Feynman. And I think that I have extracted the joyful essence of numerous papers that are impenetrably complicated. Like he was, I am annoyed by the people who focus on the social conventions – e.g. how they should call some things in order to get a stamp (or a job or a grant) from some "experts" or some "community". I am annoyed by excessively formal, abstract, and powerful tools used in contexts in which we're really finding just answers that are comprehensible within a more intuitive, physical framework.

Is that attitude what they call "hostility towards abstract mathematics"? If it is, then Feynman was and I am hostile towards abstract mathematics. However, Feynman did appreciate the evidence that the beef of mathematics is extremely useful for learning about the laws of Nature. So to some extent, the question whether Feynman was "hostile towards abstract mathematics" is a terminological question about what we mean by "abstract mathematics". Do you mean the content, beef, hormonal joy? Or do you mean the form and the cultural or behavioral habits of the community that is called the community of abstract mathematicians? Feynman loved the first thing; but disliked the other.

So it's subtle to decide whether Feynman was "hostile towards abstract mathematics". Dijkgraaf's and other people's unambiguous "Yes" answer seems disrespectful towards the actual beef of mathematics – or towards Feynman and his belief system. Why? Because this answer either indicates that by mathematics, we mean almost entirely the form, the social conventions, not the "wow" discoveries; or it indicates that Feynman didn't realize how essential some non-trivial mathematical findings or structures were for physics. He did realize that.

When people use sheaves and derived categories often, I remain skeptical about the claims that this machinery is actually needed for understanding something important. As far as I see it, the people use this machinery simply because they've learned it, they did it sufficiently soon and sufficiently easily, and they usually learned it as mindless and obedient students of a sort. Now they know it and want to prove to themselves that the stuff is important. So they work for contexts to apply this machinery even though they could often capture most of the pure mathematical joy by less powerful, less formal, less esoteric tools.

Some people simply place the form and the discipline about the pure content. I may respect some of them as very good professionals but almost none of them (or none of them) are Feynman's equals. On the other hand, what I wrote above doesn't mean that I denounce the people who are more formal than I am. There are advantages of that and I appreciate them. But that approach is in no way "universally needed".

QCD and string theory

They discuss Feynman's skepticism towards the validity of QCD which lasted for several years – and his analogous skepticism towards string theory that lasted for several years as well; unfortunately, Feynman did the serious mistake of dying during these years.

Well, yes, such hesitation – that may send individuals on the wrong track – is a tax one pays for his originality. Feynman's skepticism towards string theory was summarized in one interview. It was clear that his skepticism was technical, due to some Feynman's misunderstanding of how some technical features are derived. It had nothing to do with the would-be philosophical bullšiting about Popper. Feynman didn't get how difficult it was to construct a consistent theory of quantum gravity, and believed that string theory wasn't the right attempt. He just had an intuition that a consistent theory should be mathematically simpler and in \(D=4\) and stuff like that – which is why a more esoteric theory in \(D=10\) looked wrong to him. So he also made fun of John Schwarz in the Caltech elevator. "How many dimensions do you live in today, John?" ;-)

When he was similarly skeptical about QCD, he insisted on partons. Because of the influence of Feynman, people kept on talking about partons and quarks for quite some time. Well, we still use the word "parton" sometimes. But the implicit message of the word "parton" was that one should be skeptical towards QCD. No sensible particle physicists are skeptical today – Feynman bought it after a few years, too.

W*it criticized Feynman by the following comment:
Looking at Feynman’s career, his great accomplishments were in the years 1947-58, and it’s somewhat surprising that he didn’t make major contributions (besides the partons…) to the development of the Standard Model in the years from 1958-73.
Sure, it was a matter of Feynman's personality that he was likely to make truly revolutionary advances than some systematic discoveries that require some patient work with the details and the meticulous elaborations on the shoulders of giants. Feynman has spent much of the 1960s etc. by enjoying life, teaching, and similar simpler stuff.

Feynman and pillars of our understanding of all 4 forces

But the statement that he "didn't make major contributions (besides the partons...) to the development of the Standard Model in the years..." is deceitful. This sentence implicitly if not explicitly says that the Standard Model was only being built in 1958-73; that Feynman didn't do important things in 1958-73; and that Richard Feynman hasn't made deep contributions to the Standard Model.

Please, give me a break. All these three statements are false.

The Standard Model has been under construction from 1930 or so. The Standard Model is a relatively straightforward extension of QED, for which Feynman has rightfully shared a Nobel prize. The Standard Model is a gauge theory of three forces, the electromagnetic one, the weak nuclear interaction, and the strong nuclear interaction.

Feynman has done a lot on the systematic calculation in QED and any quantum field theory – Feynman diagrams, the calculation of the integrals that they lead to, the removal of infinities, renormalization etc. These tools – diagrams, their calculation, renormalization – are important in the whole Standard Model and tons of other quantum field theories.

The strong and weak nuclear force demand the addition of leptons and quarks, in some representations of gauge groups, non-Abelian gauge groups, and chiral (left-right-asymmetric) interactions. One could argue that less profound people than Feynman are enough for those things. Except that it isn't even true that Feynman hasn't contributed to those things.

He proposed the parton model for the strong force. That was essential for the understanding of the existence of quarks and gluons as elementary particles. The proposal was made in 1969 – in the period that W*it indicated to be unproductive for Feynman.

Now, take the weak force. In 1958, Feynman and Gell-Mann cracked the \(V-A\) character of the weak interaction. That meant that this particular new twist of the electroweak theory, the chiral (left-right-asymmetric) character of these interactions, could have been added thanks to both of these life-long rivals.

Feynman has filled the electromagnetic, strong, and weak force with his vital discoveries. These three forces combine to the Standard Model. The fourth force is gravity. Feynman has said skeptical things about string theory. But he has previously made deep contributions to quantum gravity – that string theory really builds upon.

The key point is that gravitons are roughly analogous to photons – they're quanta of gravitational and electromagnetic waves, respectively. The electromagnetic and gravitational forces may be analogously interpreted as the exchange of virtual photons and gravitons, respectively. At least when you start to calculate things, the differences between photons and gravitons are relatively minor technical "details" – spin-1 photons vs spin-2 gravitons etc.

In 1963, also in the middle of the "unproductive" period according to W*it, Feynman wrote the paper Quantum Theory of Gravitation that actually derived some Feynman rules for quantum gravity as well and that introduced the Faddeev-Popov ghosts.

As a Scholarpedia article reviews rather nicely, Feynman did understand that unitarity and analyticity could have been reconstructed by omitting a part of a loop diagram or equivalently by introducing a wrong-statistics new particle, currently called the Faddeev-Popov ghost. He did it barefoot as an exercise in quantum gravity – which we consider much harder than Yang-Mills theory today – but clearly, the same discovery is also (or especially) important for calculations of Yang-Mills theory, e.g. in the strong and weak interactions of the Standard Model.

So even when you think about the "technical advances" that were needed to go from QED to the whole Standard Model, Feynman has been responsible for an incredible fraction of the deepened understanding of the QFT description of all forces. Partons clarifying a lot about the short-distance behavior of the strong force (and later QCD); the chiral character of the weak interactions; and the key concept for the machinery to calculate loop (Feynman) diagrams in non-Abelian gauge theories such as Yang-Mills theory or (with a generalized interpretation of the term "gauge theory") quantum gravity.

Which other physicist has really matched Feynman's contributions to our understanding of the four fundamental forces? Some people might want to make it mandatory to have shoes while climbing Mont Blanc. But it remains a fact that a huge percentage of our understanding of the fundamental interactions in Nature has been found by several barefoot climbers such as Feynman. It's harder, and therefore less likely, for a given person to get to the summit barefoot; on the other hand, it's more likely for a truly talented person to get there, and for a truly talented person, the shoes are much less essential than for others. So some people simply do their discoveries barefoot. Get used to this historical (and logically understandable) fact, lesser minds.

As Gell-Mann was telling me at the 2005 Sidneyfest, Feynman was very skeptical about toothbrushes although his teeth were decaying away, and other things. Maybe it was a mistake, maybe not. But it still seems clear to me that in many cases, the speedy acceptance of some ideas is mostly the result of group think – an example of group think in action when the members of the group think are simply lucky enough.

It is absolutely right if and when some truly independent minds exist and they may be skeptical about certain ideas – even correct ideas – a little longer. As Feynman always emphasized, what's enough for doing science right is to make sure that you don't have absolute dogmas. As long as you're open-minded at least to some extent, you're ultimately forced to change your mind by the growing heap of evidence – which was the case of Feynman and QCD, and would probably be the case of Feynman and string theory if he managed to live longer.

But tons of the mediocre people similar to W*it and his "community" promote something different, a "maximum" open-mindedness in which people just okay everything that lots of others do. This is nothing else than a recipe for unlimited group think – and for the terror against all truly independent thinkers. They are building a pathological, left-wing community where some self-appointed and self-anointed mediocre apparatchiks prescribe what others have to believe. Others believe it and think how great and original they are by following the worthless aßholes-in-chief.

To some extent, the contemporary waves of criticism directed against Richard Feynman is a symptom of the neo-Marxist degeneration of the Western society.

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