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Stephen Hawking on "The Simpsons"

Richard Feynman juggling


      Quite possibly, Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking are the greatest theoretical physicist of the second half of the twentieth century.  My paper concerns comparing and contrasting these two brilliant men.  They, of course, do not stand alone.  The study and pursuit of physics today is a very collaborative effort, as many brilliant minds work together to find answers in their field.  Yet Feynman and Hawking have attained a certain status in the scientific and popular community, placing them above all others - excluding only Einstein himself.  Their books have spent weeks on the New York Times best-seller list, which is quite unusual for books with a scientific orientation.  Their unique and distinctive personalities have influenced countless students, scientists, and “common” people.  Hawking not only has a current PBS show named after him, but, oddly enough, has also been mentioned on the “Simpsons” and “Seinfeld.”  
    This paper compare and contrasts these highly influential and brilliant men, in their lives and their work.  It is not an easy or symmetrical task, as Feynman was twenty-four years Hawking's senior, and worked essentially with quantum mechanics (the theories underlying the behavior of the infinitesimally small) and Hawking works with the theories behind the exceptionally large (the Big Bang and Black Holes). Nevertheless, I believe there are enough similarities between the two theorists to create an interesting and informative paper.
    Fortunately, both scientists are fascinating authors themselves, with autobiographical tendencies.  They also have had many personal acquaintances, friends, fellow scientists and family members publish anecdotes about them.  These primary sources will provide the basic skeleton, as well as the flesh and blood, of my paper.  My intention is to provide a more human side to these physicists, which is usually overshadowed by their scientific discoveries.

The Early Years

      Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking were both considered very intelligent in their early years - but only in subjects that could sustain their unique and specific interests.  Feynman completely ignored unscientific or non-mathematical subjects, as he considered these “sissylike” and “dopey”.1  As he wrote, “I've always been very one - sided about science, and when I was younger I concentrated almost my effort on it.  In those days I didn't have the time, and I didn't have the patience, to learn what's called the humanities.”  2
    Hawking shared this early focused interest.  His mother wrote, “Stephen was certainly an advanced child in some ways, but not in all.  He didn't learn to read very early; his sisters learned much more quickly.  But he was always extremely conversational; he was also very imaginative, and that side of him bought out more than the mathematical side”.3  Imaginative and conversational could also easily describe the young Feynman.
    Stephen Hawking's father was a doctor.  Melville Feynman, Richard's father, had the ambition to become a doctor as well, even beginning medical school.  Unfortunately, the lack of money forced him to give up his studies.4 Neither family had much money growing up; fortunately, there were joyful eccentricities and a lot of love.
    Both fathers influenced and encouraged their sons' interests.  The elder Hawking wanted Stephen to follow in his footsteps.  As Hawking comments, “My father would have liked me to do medicine.  However, I felt that biology was too descriptive and not sufficiently fundamental.  I wanted to do mathematics and physics.  My father felt, however, that there would not be any jobs in mathematics apart from teaching.  He therefore made me do chemistry, physics, and only a small amount of mathematics.”5
    Feynman shared these same interests.  As John Gribbin comments on Feynman's undergraduate studies,“ Feynman also swallowed up courses in chemistry, metallurgy, experimental physics and optics - anything scientific was meat and drink to him.  When a new course in theoretical nuclear physics, intended for graduate students, was offered for the first time at MIT, he went along to sign up for that as well.6
    Feynman's father had no doubts.  Melville Feynman told his spouse even before Richard's birth, “If it's a boy, he'll be a scientist.”7  Melville not only promoted Richard's interest in the field, but did the same for his daughter Joan (who has a Ph.D. in physics as well ).  Richard, nine years her senior, was also instrumental in furthering her interest in science.8 Her mother, unfortunately, did not believe women were physiologically capable of doing science.9  Mary Hawking, Stephen's sister, is a doctor as well.10  These were families who obviously were very interested in providing their children with a scientifically - oriented education.

Graduate School and Afterwards

    During graduate school, both men began to demonstrate their innate brilliance.  The carefree, idyllic days of childhood, however, were about to end in emotional catastrophes.  As their mental agility began to separate them from many of their peers, both found women to marry. However, both situations were predestined to have harrowing experiences concerning death.  Both men believed, as they took the vows, that the marriage was doomed .  Though eventually each would have three children, as they entered marriage fatherhood was a slim possibility at best.  Their spouses were completely aware of these consequences,  but enormous love prevailed.  Imminent death was ever - present in these early households.
    Dealing with the positive characteristics first, Hawking's professor Robert Bermin writes of Stephen:                                         

He was obviously the brightest student I've ever had.  He didn't do as well in the final examination as probably thirty others I've had since then, but of course the ones who do better not only are clever people but have worked very hard.  Stephen, however, was not only very clever; but he was more than clever; but it couldn't be said that by normal standards he worked very hard, because it wasn't really necessary.  He produced his work every week for his tutorials, and I think that was really my role, just to keep him ticking over doing some work in physics.  I'm not conceited enough to think that I ever taught him anything.”9

    In another instance, his friend Derek Powney reminisces:
    I don't think at that time any of us knew how intelligent Stephen was.  We didn't realize it until our second year.  We had been working in two pairs in tutorials, and for once all four of us were doing the same work - the two pairs were in exactly the same position. We were asked to read a chapter, chapter ten, in a book called Electricity and Magnetism by Bleaney and Bleaney, a husband and wife team.  At the end of that chapter there were thirteen questions, and all of them were final honors questions.  Our tutor, Bobby Berman, said, “Do as many as you can.”
    So we had a go and I discovered very rapidly that I couldn't do any of them.  Richard     was my partner, and we worked together for the week and managed to do one and a     half questions, of which we felt very proud.  Gordon refused all assistance and         managed to do one by himself.  Stephen, as always, hadn't started.  Stephen didn't do     very much work when he was up.  
    We said to him, “It's no good, Hawking, you have to get up for breakfast in the morning.”  This would indeed be an event of its own, because he didn't get up for breakfast.  Being good little boys, we trotted off to our three lectures in the morning, whilst Stephen didn't. We went up to his rooms at nine o'clock, or five to nine, say, because it was only, five minutes up to the labs from University.
    We came back about twelve and down came Stephen.  We were in the college gateway, in the lodge.
    “Ah, Hawking!” I said.  “How many have you managed to do, then?”
    “Well,” he said, “ I've only had time to do the first ten.”  We fell about with laughter, which just froze on our lips because he was looking at us very quizzically.  We suddenly realized that that's exactly what he had done - the first ten.  I think at that point we realized that it was not just that we weren't in the same street, we weren't on the same planet.”10

    Feynman's brilliance was just as obvious.  The great physicist and Feynman's graduate supervisor was John Archibald Wheeler.  He briefly summed up Feynman's skill with the comments:
This chap from MIT: Look at his aptitude test ratings in mathematics and physics.  Fantastic!  Nobody else who's applying here at Princeton comes anywhere near so close to the absolute peak.”  Someone else on the Graduate Admissions Committee broke in, “He must be a diamond in the rough.  We've never let in anyone with scores so low in history and English.  But look at the practical experience he's had in chemistry and in working with friction.
These are not the exact words, but they convey the flavor of the committee discussion in the spring of 1939 that brought us 21 year old Richard Phillips Feynman as a graduate student.  How he ever came to be assigned to this 28-year-old assistant professor as a grader in an undergraduate junior course in mechanics I will never know, but I am eternally grateful for the fortune that brought us together on more than one fascinating enterprise.”11

    Wheeler also wrote, “The reason universities have students is so they can teach the professors, and Feynman was one of the best.”12
    Feynman's work as a research assistant with Wheeler also led to some incredible encounters with the leading theoretical physicists of the day.  His first technical talk, which concerned the quantum theory of electrodynamics, was attended by Wolfgang Pauli, John Wheeler, Eugene Wigner, Henry Norris Russell, Johnny von Neumann and Albert Einstein.  Unfortunately, his theory proved to be unsolvable.  As Feynman wrote later, “I never solved it, either - a quantum theory of half - advanced, half - retarded particles potentials - and I worked on it for years.”13
    Wheeler also took Feynman's ideas to Einstein, even before Feynman received his Ph.D.,  Wheeler told Einstein:
Feynman had found a beautiful picture to understand the probability amplitude for a dynamical system to go from one specified configuration at one time to another specified configuration at a later time.  He treats on a footing of absolute equality every conceivable history that leads from the initial state to the final one, no matter how crazy the motion in between.  The contributions of these  histories phase.  And the phase is nothing but the classical action integral, apart from the Dirac factor, h.  This prescription reproduces all of standard quantum theory.  How could one ever want a simpler way to see what quantum theory is all about! 14
    The reason I use several quotes by John Wheeler is that Wheeler also has a tie to Hawking.  Wheeler is the man who came up with the term “black hole” as well as, along with Kip Thorne, the terms “hair” on a black hole. 15 These, of course, are Hawking's interests.  Even the term “hair” on a black hole is now referred to as “Hawking radiation”.
    As I mentioned in the beginning of the chapter, the graduate and post - doctoral years were also exceptionally trying and tragic.  Both had fallen in love and decided to marry.  Hawking, however, had recently been diagnosed with motor neuron disease (to Americans it is referred to as Lou Gehrig's disease). ALS is incurable.  He was given about two years to live.  Hawking elaborates :    
At first the disease seemed to progress fairly rapidly.  There did not seem much point in working at my research, because I didn't expect to live long enough to finish my Ph.D.  As time went by, however, the disease seemed to slow down.  I also began to understand general relativity and to make progress with my work.  But what really made the difference was that I got engaged to a girl called Jane Wilde, whom I had met about the time I was diagnosed with ALS.  This gave me something to live for.16
    For Feynman, the woman he fell in love with, Arline Greenbaum,  had tuberculosis.  He knew this before he married Arline.  Love proved stronger than the wishes of his family and the fear of catching this fatal disease.   Feynman wrote:
My father was horrified, because from the earliest times, as he saw me develop, he thought I would be happy to be a scientist.  He thought it was still too early to marry - it would interfere with my career.  ..... And when he see me marrying a girl with tuberculosis, he thinks of the possibility that I'm going to get sick, too.  My whole family was worried about that - aunts, uncles, everyone.  They brought the family doctor over to our house.  He tried to explain to me that tuberculosis is a dangerous disease, and that I'm bound to get it.17

    At their wedding ceremony, which was attended only by two strangers as witnesses, he could only kiss her on the cheek.  She would last only a few more years.  Feynman, working at this point at Los Alamos,  tried hard to be philosophical, “I must have done something to myself, psychologically.  I     didn't cry until about a month later, when I was walking past a department store in Oak Ridge and noticed a pretty dress in the window.  I thought, “Arline would like that, and then it hit me.”18  

Science Itself

    This chapter shall elaborate on the scientific aspects of these men.  This chapter will demonstrate an excellent example of modern physics “standing on the shoulders,” of previous scientists.  In Hawking's writings, he mentions many scientists.  He appears to present them as stepping stones to the end result of physics and knowledge - namely his own theories.  Other than in the final essays of  his A Brief History of Time, Hawking always gives credit when it's due.  Everyone appears to be adding pieces to the puzzle of a complete theory of everything (Hawking's penultimate goal).  Hawking mentions such men as Einstein, Oppenheimer, Dirac, Schwinger, Bohr, Tomanaga, Bondi, Bethe, Gell-Man and Schrodinger.  The interesting connection is that Feynman knew all these scientists.  He presented papers to them, worked with them, argued with them and befriended them.  Of course, there is a generation gap between Feynman and Hawking  -- of approximately 25 years.  Many of these men were dead by the time Hawking was coming into his own.  This is why the idea of Feynman as a bridge to these earlier physicists is appealing.
    The first instance, other than Los Alamos, of Feynman lecturing to some of the worlds' greatest minds was the Shelter Island (Long Island) conference, in 1947.  They were gathered to discuss problems of quantum mechanics and the workings of the electron.  The participants included Teller, Beth, Pais, Bohm, Rabi, von Neumann, Wheeler, Schwinger, Pauling, Lamb and Oppenheimer.     In 1948, twenty-seven physicists met in the Pocono Mountains to discuss their views on the workings of the atom.  Along with Feynman, who lectured, in attendance were Niels Bohr, Enrico Fermi, Robert Oppenheimer, Paul Dirac, Julian Schwinger, and Edward Teller.  The discussions were open and occasionally harsh - as a new generation of physicists and their controversial theories were coming into the forefront.  Feynman was one of these younger theorists.
    In 1950, Feynman lectured at the International Colloquium on Fudamental Particles and Nuclei in Paris.  In attendance were Bohr, Dirac, Peierls, Pauli, Fermi, Born, Schwinger, Mott Wentzel amd Schrodinger.  He spoke on his new theory of quantum electrodynamics.  During conferences, however, Feynman could be quite harsh himself, even with the biggest names in physics.  As James Gleick comments in his book Genius on Feynman during his stay at Caltech:

    The physics colloquium remained an institution --- Feynman usually sitting like a magnet in the front row, capable of dominating every session, visitors knew, entertainingly or ruthlessly.  He could reduce     an unwary speaker to tears.  He shocked colleagues by tearing the flesh off an elderly Werner Heisenberg, made the young relativist Kip Thorne physically ill --- the stories reminded older physicists of Pauli (“ganz falsh”).
    Kip Thorne, of course, is the man who later had a bet with Stephen Hawking concerning the existence of black holes.  Werner Heisenberg was the creator of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which underlies all of quantum mechanics.
     Another example of a connection between Hawking and Feynman's is Robert Oppenheimer.  He was directly responsible for certain concepts of Hawking's work.  As Hawking explains:
    Chandrasekhar had shown that the exclusion principle could not halt the collapse of a star more massive than the Chandrasekhar limit, but the problem of understanding what would happen to such a star, according to general relativity, was first solved by a young American, Robert Oppenheimer, in 1939.  His result, however, suggested that there would be no observational consequences that could be detected by the telescopes of the day.  Then World War II intervened and Oppenheimer himself became closely involved in the atom bomb project.  After the war the problem of gravitational collapse was largely forgotten as most scientists became caught up in what happens on the scale of the atom and its nucleus.  In the 1960's, however, interest in the large-scale problems of astronomy and cosmology was revived by a great increase in the number and range of astronomical observations brought about by the application of modern technology.  Oppenheimer's work was then rediscovered and extended by a number of people.

    Obviously, Hawking was one of these people.  Yet I do not believe he ever met the brilliant theorist.  Feynman, of course, had.  He worked with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project.  Oppenheimer believed Feynman was one of the most brilliant, young, theorists of the day (emphasis mine).  Feynman loved to work with “Oppie”.  It suited his own brand of working with physics perfectly.  Oppenheimer was the person who, with an enormous amount of pressure on him, still found time to personally find a sanitarium for Arlene.  Feynman would never forget this kind of thoughtfulness and consideration.  Of the working conditions, and Oppenheimer's humanity, Feynman writes:

    When I got to Los Alamos, I met all these famous persons, scientists I had heard of, and it was a great pleasure for me to meet them.
            Los Alamos was very democratic.  We had meetings in Oppenheimer's office in which everybody was allowed to say anything to anybody, so it wasn't the kind of hierarchy where you had to know your place.  It was a remarkable organization that Oppenheimer made - the problems of running a bunch of scientists in a new kind of circumstance had never been tried before, and he     somehow instinctively knew how to do it so that everybody was happy.  
            Oppenheimer was extremely human.  When he was recruiting all these people to go to Los Alamos - although he had all these complicated problems of what the story was going to be, with the secrecy and so on, and he was arranging things with all these big shots - he still worried about all the details.  For example, when he asked me to come I told him I had this problem - that my wife had tuberculosis.  He himself found a hospital and called me up to say they had found somewhere that would take care of her.  I was only one of all the many people he was recruiting, but this was the way he always was, concerned with people's individual problems.
            Also he was profounder - well, he could understand what everybody was doing.  We could discuss everything technically because he understood it all, and he was good at summarizing things and coming to a conclusion.

    Another man Feynman had a personal connection with was Einstein himself.  Hawking clearly understands the importance of Einstein's general theory of relativity and helping to create quantum theory.  Einstein is one of the three physicists (along with Galileo and Newton) who merit their own short biographies at the end of A Brief History of Time (though the essay is strangely more concerned with Einstein's politics than his scientific contributions).
    I have already mentioned Einstein's attendance at Feynman's first graduate talk at Princeton.  Feynman described Einstein as exceedingly polite and courteous, even though he found problems with Feynman's and Wheeler's theory of half - advanced and half - retarded waves.  Feynman writes Einstein told the group, “…Since we have at this time not a great deal of experimental evidence, I am not absolutely sure of the correct gravitation theory.”  Einstein appreciated that things might be different from what his theory stated; he was very tolerant of others' ideas.
    Feynman and Wheeler also visited Einstein at his house on Mercer Street in Princeton.  This time Einstein agreed more in principle with their theory - because no quantum mechanics was involved.  Einstein had actually published a paper in 1909 anticipating their theory (before Feynman or Wheeler were born).  They agreed on the necessity of symmetry of past and future, and the possibility of advanced waves in time.
    This kind of collaboration with Einstein was naturally impossible for Hawking.  He was 13 years old when Einstein died in 1955.  In many ways, our version of the universe is still Einsteinian, not Hawking's.  
    The main disagreement between all these men is the theory of quantum mechanics, which Einstein helped create.  Einstein was simply more of a classical theorist, as Hawking describes:

    Quantum mechanics therefore introduces and unavoidable element of     unpredictability or randomness into science.  Einstein objected to this     very strongly, despite the important role he had played in the development of these ideas.  Einstein was rewarded the Nobel prize for his contribution to quantum theory.  Nevertheless, Einstein never accepted that the universe was governed by chance; his feelings were    summed up in his famous statement “God does not play dice”.  Most other scientists, however, were willing to accept quantum mechanics because it agreed perfectly with experiment.  Indeed, it has been an outstandingly successful theory and underlies nearly all of modern science and technology.  It governs the behavior of transistors and integrated circuits, which are the essential components of electronic devices such as televisions and computers, and is also the basis of     modern chemistry and biology.

    Feynman agrees with the importance of quantum mechanics.  At an MIT lecture concerning models of a quantum computer, Feynman stated, “And I'm not happy with all the analyses that go with just the classical theory, because nature isn't classical, dammit, and if you want to make a simulation of nature, you'd better make it quantum mechanical, and by golly it's a wonderful problem, because it doesn't look so easy.”
    John Wheeler had an interesting opinion ( and experience ) in the feasibility of quantum theory.  He comments:
I had worked with the other great man in the quantum debate, Niels Bohr, in Copenhagen.  And I know no greater debate in the last hundreds of years than the debate between Bohr and Einstein, no greater debate between two greater men, or one that extended over a longer period of time --- twenty - eight years ---- at a higher level of colleagueship.  To put it in brief: Does the world exist out there independent of us, as Einstein thought; or, as Bohr thought, is there some sense in which we, through our choice of observing equipment, have something to do with what comes about?  That debate most people in the world of physics --- myself included --- feel was conclusively in favor of Bohr.

    Both Feynman and Hawking also felt as Wheeler did.  The discussions of computers are also interesting.  Modern physics today would be inconceivable without computers.  The days of paper, pencil, chalk and blackboard are essentially over (excluding the world of teaching and demonstrating concepts).  Computers have revolutionized the practice of physics.  Both men have their views concerning this revolution.  Hawking comments on the power of computers, “…At present, computers are a useful aid in research, but they have to be directed by human minds.  If one extrapolates their recent rapid rate of development, however, it would seem quite possible that they would take over altogether in theoretical physics.  So maybe the end is in sight for theoretical physicists, if not for theoretical physics.”
    Feynman would disagree.  He was fascinated by the workings and repairing of radios.  He was in charge of the basic computers (actually calculators ) at Los Alamos.  He put them together and repaired them.  His understanding is that their will always be a human element to the use of computers, perhaps because he understands how they work so well.  For several years, Feynman taught a course on computers at Caltech, both in hardware and software.  Feynman relates:

    I got a much more profound view of all this stuff.  I don't have a philosophical view; everything is a practical problem.  The development of  increasing computer capacity, i.e. the ability to solve problems of wider and wider ranges of complexity and apparent difficulty, in recent years is very interesting.  One of the things that is amusing about computers is to discover that they can do what the scientists consider themselves better at than the rest of the populace, such as thinking, doing mathematics, learning equations, and doing logic - all can be done by computers.  But you cannot make a computer today which can look at the street and when there's a dog in the street it will bark, as an actual dog would do.  That's interesting.      These are the things that we never pay much attention to philosophically.

    Another man who has a personal connection between Feynman and Hawking is Murray Gell-Mann.  He is the physicist responsible for the discovery and naming of quarks.  He writes of Hawking, “Hawking is the only one on the relativity side who understands particle physics...He's a remarkable man, an absolutely astounding fellow.”
    Gell-Mann was also at Caltech when Feynman was there.  Only a secretary's office separated these two Nobel Prize winners.  Gell-Mann comments on Feynman:

    What I have always liked about Richard's style was the lack of pomposity in his presentation.  I was tired of theorists who dressed up their work in fancy mathematical language or invented pretentious frameworks for their sometimes rather modest contributions.  Richard's idea, often powerful, ingenious, and original, were presented in a straight - forward manner that I found refreshing.

    Gell-Mann was less impressed with another side of Feynman.  He told Jirayr Zorthian, Feynman's artist friend, “Feynman is supposed to be a brilliant physicist, and we need his input at Caltech, we need him to talk to us about physics.  But what does he do?  He goes off and spends all his time with go-go girls and bongo drummers and artists.  He wastes so much time on people, and I don't see what they give him.”
    Feynman, of course, would not see it that way.  He needed other outlets and interests other than physics.  He truly enjoyed the company of other people.  To Feynman spending his life solely in the company of physicists, would have been a waste.
    And then there is a personal connection between Feynman and Hawking themselves.  Hawking mentions Feynman's “sum-over-histories” concept several times as important in the development of his own theories. John Wheeler writes of Feynman's discoveries:
        I was very enthusiastic about the idea that in the world there are nothing but particles, with Dirac thinking that the electron is the basic particle, and that if you could understand the interaction between electron and electron, then everything else would follow, and everything else would be subsidiary to that simple picture.  The idea of an electro-magnetic field traveling through space, that's just talk, work on that.  Someone suggested that he should look at a paper by Dirac, and that furnished a little hint of a way which he later expanded into his “ sum-over-histories” way of describing quantum theory, which to me is so simple, so beautiful.   At the time, I went around to see Einstein about it.  Einstein listened to me patiently in his upstairs study, and at the end  I said, “Professor Einstein, doesn't this make quantum theory absolutely beautiful, simple, inevitable?”  And he said, “I still can't believe God plays dice.  But perhaps I've earned the right to make my mistakes.” So he was unshakable!”
    Hawking actually met Feynman during a visit to Caltech.  Hawking mentions Feynman's theories many times in his books.  Feynman, however, throughout my research, has not mentioned Hawking, or his theories.  Sadly, Hawking does not mention any of these discussions either.  Though Feynman concentrated on interactions in the sub-atomic world, and Hawking focuses on the cosmos as a whole, their shared interests and insights towards science must have been fascinating.

The Complete Unified Field Theory

  To discover a complete unified field theory is Hawking's dream and ultimate goal.  It was Einstein's as well.  It is the attempt to explain everything and every force in the universe.  As Hawking writes :

    Einstein spent most of his later years unsuccessfully searching for a unified theory, but the time was not ripe: there were partial theories for gravity and the electromagnetic force, but very little was known about the nuclear forces.  Moreover, Einstein refused to believe in the reality of quantum mechanics, despite the important role he had played in its development.  Yet it seems that the uncertainty principleis a fundamental feature of the universe we live in.  A successful unified theory must therefore necessarily incorporate this principle.

  Hawking elaborates on his own personal vision:

           Up to now, most scientists have been too occupied with the development of new theories that describe what the universe is to ask the question why.  On the other hand, the people whose business is to ask why, the philosophers, have not been able to keep up with the advance of scientific theories.  In the eighteenth century, philosophers considered the whole of human knowledge, including science, to be their field and discussed questions such as: Did the universe have a beginning?  However, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, science became too technical and mathematical for the philosophers, or anyone else except a few specialists.  Philosophers reduced the scope of their inquiries so much that Wittgenstein, the most famous philosopher of this century, said, “The sole remaining task for philosophy is the analyze of language.”  What a comedown from the great tradition of philosophy from Aristotle to Kant!
        However, if we do discover a complete theory, it should in time be understandable in broad principle by everyone, not just a few scientists.  Then we shall all, philosophers, scientists, and just ordinary people, be able to take part in the discussion of the question of why it is that we and the universe exist.  If we find the answer to that, it would be the ultimate triumph of human reason --- for then we would know the mind of God.

    Hawking believes we may find the complete unified theory within the next twenty years.  Feynman, however, had his doubts:

              The way I think of what we're doing is, we're exploring ---     we're trying to find out as much as we can about the world.  People say to me, “Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?”  No, I'm not.  I'm just looking to find out more about the world.   If it turns out there is a simple, ultimate law which explains everything, so be it; that would be nice to discover.  If it turns out it's like an onion, with millions of layers, and we're sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that's the way it is.  But whatever way it comes out, it's nature, and she's going to come out the way she is!  Therefore when we go to investigate it we shouldn't predecide what it is we're going to find, except to try to find out more.
        If you think that you are going to get an answer to some deep philosophical question, you may be wrong --- it may be that you can't get an answer to that particular problem by finding out more about the character of nature.  But I don't look at it like that; my interest in science is to simply find out more about the world, and the more I find out, the better it is.
        More directly, Feynman commented:
          But again and again its been a failure.  Eddington, who thought that with the theory of electrons and quantum mechanics everything was going to be simple... Einstein, who thought that he had a unified theory just around the corner but didn't know anything about nuclei and was unable of course to get it... People think they're very close to the answer, but I don't think so.
      Whether or not nature has an ultimate, simple, unified, beautiful form is an open question, and I don't want to say either way.

    James Gleick relates the story of a historian of particle physics pressed him on just this issue:
        “So we aren't any closer to unification than we were in Einstein's time?” the historian asked.  Feynman grew angry.  “It's a crazy question!...We're certainly closer.  We know more.  And if there's a finite amount to be known, we obviously must be closer to having the knowledge, okay?  I don't know how to make this into a sensible question... It's all so stupid.  All these interviews are always so damned useless.”
    He rose from his desk and walked out the door and down the corridor, drumming his knuckles along the wall.  The writer heard him shout, just before he disappeared: “It's goddamned useless to talk about these things!  It's a complete waste of time!  The history of these things is nonsense!  You're trying to make something difficult and complicated out of something that's simple and beautiful.”
    Across the hall Murray Gell-Mann looked out of his office. “I see you've met Dick,” he said.

    Feynman also believed in the power of doubt itself.  He believed it was a powerful motivating source in science.  He explained:

          Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know.  But I don't know whether everyone realizes this is true.  Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science.  It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question --- to doubt --- to not be sure.  I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.  Herein lies a responsibility to society.

    Feynman ends his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? with this statement:

    It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

Facing Death

    Hawking and Feynman were both atheists.  Though they both had very brief touches with religion (Feynman's early schooling, Hawking's continuing mentioning of “God”), neither man believes in a religious world view.  Hawking describes his “emotions” at the time, which appears to be more of a scientific attempt at comprehension than simple fear:

      The realization that I had an incurable disease that was likely to kill me in a few years was a bit of a shock.  How could something like that happen to me?  Why should I be cut off like this?....Not knowing what was going to happen to me or how rapidly the disease would progress, I was at a loose end.....My dreams at that time were rather disturbed.  Before my condition was diagnosed, I had been very bored with life.  There had not seemed to be anything worth doing.  But shortly after I came out of hospital, I dreamt that I was going to be executed.  I suddenly realized that there were a lot of worthwhile things that I could do if I were reprieved.

    In his writings, Hawking never appears to mention a heaven, hell, a moral universe, an afterlife, etc.  He had a very scientific way of looking at death, albeit understandingly pessimistic.  It also has a British “stiff upper lip” quality about it.  Hawking faced a death sentence, which we all eventually do.  Feynman viewed his experience with death in nearly the same particular, scientific, analytical view.  Feynman, of course, also had a certain, characteristic flair for life.  Freeman Dyson, his friend and fellow physicist, writes:

            The last time I saw him was at a meeting on Long Island called Shelter Island Two.  It was a reunion of the people who had been at a famous meeting, thirty years earlier, or whatever it was, and it was a very emotional occasion.  Feynman was by then known to be a dying man, but he never let it show.  We all had a good time, and talked about the old days.  That was the last time, but much more memorable was the time before that, at a little meeting in Texas organized by John Wheeler, who was Feynman's original teacher.  Wheeler had arranged this little meeting, a gathering of physicists and astronomers, at a place called the World of Tennis, in the neighborhood of Austin, Texas.  It was a hideout for oil millionaires, a terrible place, most garish, the ugliest place you can imagine, and correspondingly expensive.  I think the rooms were three hundred dollars a night or so, which some oil millionaire was paying for ---- we didn't have to pay.  But anyway, we arrived in the middle of the night, and we looked at our rooms, which were enormous and hideous, and we all groaned, and said what an awful place this was.  But Dick Feynman, who was then well over sixty and recovering from a cancer operation, simply said: “I'm not going to sleep in this place.  Goodbye!”  And he walked off into the woods by himself, and spent the night under the stars.  That was Feynman.

      Joan Feynman, his sister and another fellow physicist comments:  

      When he was dying in the hospital, we talked at least once a week from about seven p.m. until midnight, about things like consciousness and the universe.  About a week before he died, I said to him:
      “I figure that whether or not there's a God or anything like that, is a question of physics, really.  Now I've often been wrong, very, very wrong, about physics” --- this is me talking --- “ and so I don't know if there's a God.  But you have a problem: you haven't been wrong as much as I have.”  He said: “Well, I know there isn't.”
      ... You know, it is a question of physics, really, how the universe is put together, and he certainly didn't change his mind about that at any time.  He just didn't change his mind about that at any time.  He just did not believe the universe was put together by any supernatural being, governing anything.  So his belief was that there wasn't anything else.

      Feynman himself explains:
You see, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing.  I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.  I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything.  There are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask “ Why are we here?”  I might think about it a little bit, and if I can't figure it out then I'll go on to something else.  But I don't have to know an answer.  I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose  ---- which is the way it is, so far as I can tell.  Possibly.  It doesn't frighten me.

   When the actual end was near, his friend and fellow artist, Jirayr Zorthian comments:

    I knew he was going, and he knew he was going.  He said, “you know, Jiry, I can live longer, I'm sure I can.  But I don't think it's important anymore.  It would be a way of life I don't want, in a wheelchair and so on...My wife Dabney, was with me, of course, and    as we walked out of the room into the corridor, he called out, “Jiry, don't worry about anything.  Go out and have a good time!”

    Feynman's sister Joan describes the end:

            The other message which I think he wanted out was a little later.  He pulled himself up out of the coma and opened his eyes briefly and said, “This dying is boring,” and then went back into the coma.  This sense of humor is a bit macabre, but that's what he said. That's the last thing he said.  
            So until the very end he was giving us signals that he knew we were there.  Here was this guy who was dying and yet what he was thinking of was giving the living some more information about life and nature.  He was still watching nature, as he was leaving.


The Nature of Their Genius

    Stephen Hawking and Richard Feynman are considered by many to be geniuses.  But precisely what does this term mean?  What unique property separate these physicists from others?  Why have they been referred to as the heirs, or even equals to, of Einstein?  The promulgation of scientific thought tends to be very collaborative, with the best minds openly discussing the newest theories and discoveries at lectures, seminars and colloquiums.  Even before Galileo, it has been an international effort.  Feynman shared his Nobel Prize with two other scientists who were working on the same ideas as he had, Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichiro Tomonaga (though they worked independently). Hawking appears to need to collaborate, be it with Roger Penrose or James Hartle.  The days of the gentleman scientist, working completely alone, have long since ended.  Something, however, makes these men distinct from others.  Quite possibly, it is because they have that exceptionally rare characteristic called “genius."  It's an intangible gift which elevates and distinguishes them from others.  As the Oxford Companion to Philosophy defines “genius”, “The genius expresses through his work the main currents of scientific and other thought of his time; he not only synthesizes these but adds the stamp of his own mind to them; the force of the ideas alters the direction of subsequent thought; the ideas embody a vision of the world, they appeal to the imagination as well as the intellect.”                        
    This describes the life and attributes of  both men.  Hawking's books clearly mention the work of many previous scientists, and how he has synthesized their theories.  These include Oppenheimer, Dirac, Schwinger, Bohr, Pauli,  Tomanaga, Bondi, Bethe, Gell-Mann, Schrodinger, and Einstein.  All these physicists Feynman actually knew and discussed physics with.  Feynman always gave credit to those who aided in the creation of his theories.  “Ideas”, “vision of the world”, “imagination”, and “intellect” are characteristic of both these men. Their “personal stamp” is inbedded throughout the world of  physics.                 It may have something to do with their thought processes.  Both physicists had the ability to think of science visually as well as simply mathematically.  This was an ability they also shared with Einstein.  As Feynman describes his method:
         Visualization in some form or other is a vital part of my thinking...half - assed kind of vague, mixed with symbols.  It is very difficult to explain, because it is not clear.  My atom, for example, when I     think of an electron, I see an atom and I see a vector and a y written somewhere , sort of, or mixed with it somehow, and an amplitude all mixed up with xs ... it is very visual ... a mixture of a mathematical expression wrapped into and around, in a vague way, around the object.  So I see all the time visual things associated with     what I am trying to do.
    For Hawking, this visual way of viewing physics is also what separates him from others in his field.  Kip Thorne, Hawking's betting friend and a Caltech physicist (like Feynman), comments:

    As Stephen gradually lost the use of his hands, he had to start developing geometrical arguments that he could do pictorially in his head.  He developed a powerful set of tools, you may develop other tools, and the new tools are amenable to different kinds of problems than the old tools.  And if you are the only master in the world of these new tools, that means there are certain kinds of problems you can solve and nobody else can.

    This new “powerful set of tools” can obviously also be applied to describe the Feynman diagrams and his “sum - over histories” theory.  All theoretical physicists in this field, including Hawking, use Feynman's inventions.  Beyond simply possessing these new tools, however, is how you handle them.  That is what separates a common craftsman from an artist.  The mathematician Marc Kac, who knew Feynman at Cornell, considered Feynman more of a “magician."  He noted:

    An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better.  There is no mystery as to how his mind works.  Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it.  It is different with the magicians.  They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the workings of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible.  Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark.  They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician's mind works.  Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.

    These examples reflect upon how these men are distinctive.  Both men, in contrast to Kac's description, are considered examples of excellent and caring teachers.  In their writings and lectures, they attempt to make some of the most difficult concepts in physics understandable to the common person.  These men repeatedly gave talks to some of the most brilliant physicists in the world - in highly technical and mathematical language.  But one does not need a Ph.D. to enjoy and learn from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman or A Brief History of Time.  Millions of non-scientists from around the world have bought their books.  Teaching is, or in Feynman's case, was, their profession.  They have spent their adult lives educating people, and have loved it.  Their ability to bring a personal, humorous and humane touch to physics is also a part of their genius.  Many highly intelligent people do not have this ability to communicate.
    Another connection, apart from teaching, is that they both won the Albert Einstein award.  In the physics community, this is considered more prestigious than the Nobel Peace Prize.  Hawking received the honor when he was 35.  Feynman received it when he was 36.
    Some physicists, however, believe Hawking's “genius” and contributions to science to be overestimated in the public's mind due to his ability to sell books and his condition.  Though Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman was on the New York Times best-seller list for fifteen weeks, he is not as well known as Hawking (Hawking was on the list for fifty-three).  Hawking not only has a current PBS show named after him, but, oddly enough, has also been mentioned on the “Simpsons” and “Seinfeld."   He is now part of our cultural heritage.                            
    Many scientists, (some who even knew Feynman) consider Hawking brilliant.  As the Caltech physicist, Gerald Wasserburg wrote of Hawking, “He is one of the most striking examples in the history of science of the power of the human intellect.”  Hawking's colleague, Ian Moss, states, “Stephen comes up with all the ideas.  The rest of us only test them out to see if they work.”.  Both men have been described as the most brilliant theorist since Einstein, no easy feat.
    Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary defines genius as “extraordinary intellectual power esp. as manifested in creative activity” and “a person endowed with transcendent mental superiority; specif: a person with a very high intelligence quotient.”  This would certainly apply to Hawking and Feynman.  Their creativity activity has led to the discovery of Feynman diagrams and Hawking radiation, as well as their work with, and insights into, black holes, the atomic bomb, the big bang, weak interactions, radioactive decay, polarons, partons, friction, computers, quantum electrodynamics, quantum fields, the origin and future of the cosmos, quantum gravity, quarks, baby universes, DNA, superfluidity, and the beginning and ending of time itself.  When this amount of creative ability is mixed with “transcendent mental superiority”, genius is born.  As the author and scientist John Gribbin, who has written books on both Hawking and Feynman, comments:

    “Black hole explosions?” “Black holes are hot,” and “Black holes aren't black” were the headlines in the scientific journals which greeted this astonishing claim.  The science behind the claim was difficult to put across to a lay audience, but the popular reports made up for that by dwelling on Hawking's genius --- the nearest thing we've got to another Einstein --- and the story of how, crippled by a disease which makes it impossible for him to write and difficult for him to speak, he carries all the mathematical calculations for his theorizing in his head, a skill which theorist Werner Israel has suggested is equivalent to a modern Mozart composing an entire symphony in his head.

    This comparison with Mozart is interesting.  Genius is associated with intuition, inspiration and insight.  Geniuses create original art, science, music, literature, etc.  Think of Shakespeare, Mozart and Einstein.  There is no “test” for these particular traits, and no way to force or learn them.  It is an exalted and idiosyncratic talent.  Genius is a characteristic simply of a different realm.  In the introduction to Feynman's Six Easy Pieces, a collection of his celebrated Lectures on Physics, Paul Davies writes:

         Indeed, in pursuing his interests in this manner Feynman displayed a healthy contempt for rigorous formalisms.  It is hard to convey the depth of genius that is necessary to work like this. Theoretical physics is one of the toughest intellectual exercises, by combining abstract concepts that defy visualization with extreme mathematical complexity.  Only by adopting the highest standards of mental discipline can most physicists make progress.  Yet Feynman appeared to ride roughshod over this strict code of practice and pluck new results like ready-made fruit from the Tree of Knowledge.

    These “highest standards of mental discipline” and “depth of genius” can also be applied to Hawking.  He is, after all, forced to live in the world of the mind.  It is fortunate for a man crippled with ALS to be brilliant in the world of theoretical physics.  As Hawking explains, “I was lucky to have chosen to work in theoretical physics because that was one of the few areas in which my condition would not be a serious handicap.  And I was fortunate that my scientific reputation increased at the same time that my disability got worse.”
    Soon, Hawking and Penrose would develop new mathematical techniques that proved that the big bang occurred.  With his mental discipline intact, when many people with an incurable disease would have simply given up, he proved that there was an actual “beginning in time”.  It is quite an achievement.
    Genius also entails the courage to risk failure by trying blind alleys and see where they lead.  Einstein had his “cosmological constant.”  Feynman had his “quantum theory of half-advanced, half-retarded particles.”  In addition, Hawking has completely changed his views on the big-bang singularity.  All men were able to look at the evidence and publicly admit they were wrong.  Their scientific theories are based on strict honesty and integrity.  That is one reason Congress and NASA chose Feynman to be on the panel that examined the explosion of the space shuttle “Challenger.”
    When we consider the characteristics and traits of genius, Feynman and Hawking surely warrant the title.  Creative ability, originality, inspiration, intuition, ability to discovery and explain new concepts, extraordinary intellectual powers, transcendent mental superiority, high intelligence quotient, the stamp of their minds on main currents of scientific thought, force of ideas, imagination and a vision of the world (and universe), are all attributes of Richard Feynman and Stephen Hawking.  They helped to interpret, mold, and clarify our current vision of the universe, from the tiniest sub-atomic particle, traveling backwards and forwards in time, to the entire cosmos itself.  Unlike all geniuses, they also have honesty, integrity, a sense of humor, and a talent for disseminating their views throughout the world.  Without their theories or their personalities, our universe would be a duller and, as Feynman would say, “dopier” place.      




    1Ted Honderich, ed., The Oxford Companion to Philosophy, (Oxford : Oxford University Press, 1995) , p. 307.
    2John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin, Richard Feynman : A Life in Science (New York : Dutton, 1997) , p. 113.
    3Stephen Hawking, ed., A Brief History of Time : A Reader's Companion (New York : Bantam Books, 1992) , p 110.
    4James Gleick, Genius : The Life and Science of Richard Feynman,  (New York : Pantheon Books, 1992) , p. 10.
    5John Boslough, Stephen Hawking's Universe (New York : William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1985) , p. 30.
    7Ibid. p. 29.
    8Henry Bosley Woolf, ed., Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (Springfield, MA. : G. & C. Merriam Company, 1981.) , p. 474.
    9Richard P. Feynman, Six Easy Pieces (Reading, MA. : Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, 1995) , p. xii.
    10Stephen Hawking, Black Holes and Baby Universes and Other Essays (New York : Bantam Books, 1993) , p. 23.


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