Drawing Theories Apart: The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics 1st Edition by David Kaiser (PDF)


Ebook Info

  • Published: 2009
  • Number of pages: 376 pages
  • Format: PDF
  • File Size: 2.20 MB
  • Authors: David Kaiser


Winner of the 2007 Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society. Feynman diagrams have revolutionized nearly every aspect of theoretical physics since the middle of the twentieth century. Introduced by the American physicist Richard Feynman (1918-88) soon after World War II as a means of simplifying lengthy calculations in quantum electrodynamics, they soon gained adherents in many branches of the discipline. Yet as new physicists adopted the tiny line drawings, they also adapted the diagrams and introduced their own interpretations. Drawing Theories Apart traces how generations of young theorists learned to frame their research in terms of the diagrams—and how both the diagrams and their users were molded in the process.Drawing on rich archival materials, interviews, and more than five hundred scientific articles from the period, Drawing Theories Apart uses the Feynman diagrams as a means to explore the development of American postwar physics. By focusing on the ways young physicists learned new calculational skills, David Kaiser frames his story around the crafting and stabilizing of the basic tools in the physicist’s kit—thus offering the first book to follow the diagrams once they left Feynman’s hands and entered the physics vernacular.

User’s Reviews

Reviews from Amazon users which were colected at the time this book was published on the website:

⭐Kaiser (preface): “I have attempted to provide guideposts for readers who last saw an integral sign in high school (and didn’t like them).” I say, if you did not like integrals in high-school, you will not now appreciate this book.(1) Begin with Kaiser’s bibliography (pages 421- 460): Forty pages of references which send the reader on a delightful treasure hunt. I did notice one journal reference absent: Richard Feynman, 1963 Acta Physica Polonica.(2) I had intended to read this historical work earlier; however, I have been immersed in studies of Quantum Field Theory and did not want to ‘look back,’ as it were, while disentangling the modern textbooks (Weinberg, Duncan, Peskin and Schroeder). Steven Weinberg compelled me to dig deeper. Kaiser reminds us that “the day-to-day work of being a theorist today bears little resemblance to the earlier field-theoretic textbooks.” (page 384). I have read from nearly every textbook in the field (field theoretic), starting from Bogoliubov & Shirkov (1959), continuing to Baulieu, Iliopoulos & Seneor (2017), it proved interesting to view the topic through the lens of history and time !(3) Kaiser (and Schweber before him: QED and the Men Who Made It) highlights the influence of Freeman Dyson. Chapter three begins: “Feynman diagrams made the move from Feynman’s disappointing Pocono presentation to physicist’s lecture halls and research notebooks thanks to the efforts of Freeman Dyson.” Now, Freeman Dyson says of Feynman and Schwinger: “Worse still, no one else could understand what either of them was doing.” (page 75). Kaiser: “from the very beginning Feynman and Dyson held different ideas about how the diagrams should be drawn, interpreted and used.” (page 175). For background, I urge perusal of Freeman Dyson’s Advanced Quantum Mechanics lectures notes (1951, later published by World Scientific in 2011).(4) Read: “…that textbooks obscure the historical routes by which scientific knowledge develops and has become something of a truism.” (page 254). Hans Bethe reminds us “that the purpose of such a book is to be useful, not to be immortal.” (page 262). Kaiser writes: “to the great majority of theorists in postwar America, at least, usefulness had little to do with timeliness or foundational rigor.” (page 262).(5) Let us hear from Richard Feynman (1961 Solvay Conference): “You sit there and say…why isn’t everybody doing S-Matrix ? , another guy says…why isn’t anybody doing field theory ? …the real problem is…why is nobody solving anything ? ” (page 382). Kaiser writes: “these strange, unorthodox path-integral methods could claim almost no dedicated followers for the better part of two decades.” (page 177).(6) Kaiser: “What gets lost from view in today’s sea of Feynman diagrams is the diagrams’ own historicity–and even more important, the tremendous pedagogical apparatus which, springing up soon after World War Two, allowed the new calculational techniques to spread and flourish. The diagrams’ very success today hides both the variety of uses to which they had earlier been put and the work required for students to acquire, adopt, and subtly adapt these skills.” (page 387).(7) Finally, one reviewer writes “a wonderful way to learn how Feynman diagrams work and what they mean–in effect, a super do-it-yourself manual.” (paperback, back-cover). That is a statement with which I must disagree.However, this is a thought-provoking work and an excellent avenue for further exploration.

⭐This is a very engaging book on at least two different levels: as a book about history, and as a book about physics.The book is an early adopter of a couple of new and intriguing techniques in history of science. Instead of trying to identify theories or paradigms, it focuses on physicists’ “paper tools” –the techniques they used for calculations. Also, it emphasizes the importance of pedagogy — a subject’s transmission through textbooks, clusters of professors/postdocs/grad students and, importantly in this case, informal contact.Feynman introduced his diagrams at a small, private conference in spring 1948. He didn’t publish about them until September 1949; but by then they were already widely used in studying quantum electrodynamics, albeit not well-understood. Kaiser traces the roles of Freeman Dyson and a cadre of postdocs from Princeton’s IAS in spreading the diagrams on both sides of the Atlantic. As each researcher pieced together his (or occasionally her) own understanding of the diagrams, he transmitted it — together with many idiosyncrasies — to his students. A neat figure in the book compares the styles of diagram used by professors and students at major universities. Students tended to follow their teachers, but no two institutions had the same style. (Kaiser also traces the spread of the diagrams in Japan and Russia, two physics communities that were largely isolated from Western researchers.)The result was a Balkanization of styles and interpretations of the diagrams. This had already begun with Dyson’s first articles in February 1949. Feynman had viewed the diagrams as intuitively depicting the behavior of particles in spacetime. Kaiser connects the diagrams’ enduring appeal to their similarity to particle tracks in bubble-chamber photos, which makes a viewer feel that the diagrams are a realistic picture of what’s going on. Dyson, on the other hand, regarded them as a geometric algorithm for keeping track of terms in a perturbative expansion in QED; he was also the first to promote viewing them in an abstract, topological way.These centrifugal tendencies became elaborated and diversified in the 1950s and 1960s. All sorts of new diagrams sprung up, with different kinds of lines, arrows, geometries and “blobs” — but eventually all were called “Feynman diagrams”. The uses of the diagrams also diverged, from being a tool of quantum field theory to being a tool for its (attempted) overthrow. Among many other fascinating stories, Kaiser describes the UC Berkeley “particle democracy” movement, which used geometrical permutations of the diagrams to make a case that the distinction between “elementary” and “composite” particles is false. (By similar means, the school of Lev Landau came to regard diagrams as more fundamental than field theory.)Kaiser does a great job of providing the historical context of what problems each group was trying to address, including adapting the diagrams to studying QED in condensed matter as well as other QFTs, such as the strong interaction. Along the way, you’ll learn a little about Regge theory, pomerons, the Mandelstam representation, the analytical S-matrix, and other approaches to QFT that still surface today in corners of the arXiv. You won’t find these developments described in other histories of the period, such as Schweber’s “QED” or Pais’s ultra-terse “Inward Bound”. Kaiser’s book is indispensible for understanding diagrams in the physics literature from the 1950s and 1960s and perhaps later. (And since it’s much shorter than Schweber and less oracular than Schwinger, it’s a good introduction to the second half of the Dover collection of QED papers, which Schwinger edited and introduced.)Readers more interested in QFT than in history might be put off by Kaiser’s at times dry style, and especially by the critical theory-tinged first chapter (influenced by the science studies ramblings of Bruno Latour et al.) But don’t be put off. While much of the history Kaiser describes has been forgotten, it survives in the eclectic style of “Feynman diagrams” you’ll find in many textbooks today — e.g., Itzykson & Zuber, Ryder, Mattuck, and A. Zee’s recent “Nutshell”, which mixes diagrammatic styles with an especially breezy abandon. In all of these, turn a few pages past the dutiful description of the 1949 Feynman-Dyson rules and you’ll start seeing diagrams about QCD, or diagrams with blobs or double-arrows or other innovations, most of which won’t be explained systematically. Kaiser’s book will help you to decipher some of these diagrammatic puzzles. Even better, it may make you sensitive to some of the uses, interpretations, and ambiguities of diagrams that you might never have considered otherwise.

⭐Historical books are generally far down my list of books to read but this was a rare gem. Granted, I have a strong interest in nuclear/hep physics which certainly helps but I could see anyone with some basic grounding in math/science enjoying this book. It really is fascinating to look at the myriad ways in which the diagrams not only spread, but evolved and how they have become ubiquitous. The bibliography is quite extensive and at some point I will try to find some of the source material to look at too. Definitely a geek page turner.

⭐excellent book. but on p.105, it is claimed that Sir Professor Sam Edwards did not complete his Ph.D. under Schwinger. This is incorrect as could have been ascertained with either an email to Edwards or a visit to the Cavendish Lab at the University Cambridge which Edwards headed, to see his Ph.D. diploma.


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