2012 : WHAT IS YOUR FAVORITE DEEP, ELEGANT, OR BEAUTIFUL EXPLANATION?

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Managing Director, Digital Science, Macmillan Science & Education; Former Publishing Director, nature.com; Co-Organizer, Sci Foo

Feynman's Lifeguard

I would like to propose not only a particular explanation, but also a particular exposition and exponent: Richard Feynman's lectures on quantum electrodynamics (QED) delivered at the University of Auckland in 1979. These are surely among the very best ever delivered in the history of science.

For a start, the theory is genuinely profound, having to do with the behaviour and interactions of those (apparently) most fundamental of particles, photons and electrons. And yet it explains a huge range of phenomena, from the reflection, refraction and diffraction of light to the structure and behaviour of electrons in atoms and their resultant chemistry. Feynman may have been exaggerating when he claimed that QED explains all of the phenomena in the world "except for radioactivity and gravity", but only slightly.

Let me give a brief example. Everyone knows that light travels in straight lines—except when it doesn't, such as when it hits glass or water at anything other than a right angle. Why? Feynman explains that light always takes the path of least time from point to point and uses the analogy of a lifeguard racing along a beach to save a drowning swimmer. (This being Feynman, the latter is, of course, a beautiful girl.) The lifeguard could run straight to the water's edge and then swim diagonally along the coast and out to sea, but this would result in a long time spent swimming, which is slower than running on the beach. Alternatively, he could run to the water's edge at the point nearest to the swimmer, and dive in there. But this makes the total distance covered longer than it needs to be. The optimum, if his aim is to reach the girl as quickly as possible, is somewhere in between these two extremes. Light, too, takes such a path of least time from point to point, which is why it bends when passing between different materials.

He goes on to reveal that this is actually an incomplete view. Using the so-called 'path integral formulation' (though he avoids that ugly term), Feynman explains that light actually takes every conceivable path from one point to another, but most of these cancel each other out, and the net result is that it appears to follow only the single path of least time. This also happens to explain why uninterrupted light (along with everything else) travels in straight lines—so fundamental a phenomenon that surely very few people even consider it to be in need of an explanation. While at first sight such a theory may seem preposterously profligate, it achieves the welcome result of minimising that most scientifically unsatisfactory of all attributes: arbitrariness.

My amateurish attempts at compressing and conveying this explanation have perhaps made it sound arcane. But on the contrary, a second reason to marvel is that it is almost unbelievably simple and intuitive. Even I, an innumerate former biologist, came away not merely with a vague appreciation that some experts somewhere had found something novel, but that I was able to share directly in this new conception of reality. Such an experience is all too rare in science generally, but in the abstract, abstruse world of quantum physics is all but unknown. The main reason for this perspicacity was the adoption of a visual grammar (those famous 'Feynman diagrams') and an almost complete eschewal of hardcore mathematics (the fact that the spinning vectors that are central to the theory actually represent complex numbers seems almost incidental). Though the world it introduces is as unfamiliar as can be, it makes complete sense in its own bizarre terms.