The Character of Physical Law

Sure, Feynman was a misogynistic asshole. But this isn’t “Surely, You’re Joking”. In this book, Feynman talks about his speciality: figuring out physics!

This was my thought process as I paid 10 cents (yes, really) for a used copy of this book at a library sale several years ago. It sat on my book shelf, unread, for a while.

I decided to dust it off and start reading it. In the book, Feynman talks through how physical laws look like, through the stories of their discoveries. He is careful to give proper credit, with a nice footnote for each person he mentions.

The book mentions a woman once, and even then only when it is about a collaboration she had with a man. But this is a book from the ’60s and women have been historically discouraged and excluded from physics. Maybe there wasn’t anyone to cite?

One of the fundamantal properties of physical law, according to the book, are symmetries. Symmetries, as you would expect from a physics book for a lay audience, are poorly defined.

I am certain that Feynman, as a scienstist, does know the proper definition: it is when a system is invariant to a transformation group, and that group is called “the symmetry group”.

Before Noether_

One of the fundamantal properties of physical law, according to the book, are symmetries. Symmetries, as you would expect from a physics book for a lay audience, are poorly defined.

I am certain that Feynman, as a scienstist, does know the proper definition: it is when a system is invariant to a transformation group, and that group is called “the symmetry group”.

Before Noether_ was known for revolutionizing math, she proved an important theorem: every differentiable symmetry has a corresponding conservation law. Yet, Feynman acts surprised when he finds that conservation laws are the same, even as the details of the physical systems change.

He does not mention Noether by name. He does not mention anything about the relationship between symmetry and conservation. Even as he keeps talking about both of these things.

I’m admittedly biased. Noether is my childhood hero. Her story, accomplishments, dealing with sexism, dealing with anti-semitism, and getting only a fraction of the recognition she deserved, was a powerful read when I was ten.

The way Feynman ignores these contributions was the only thing I managed to take away from the book. It’s a shame. It really did have a lot of insights. But it felt like reading while being punched in the face, the only thing I can remember is being punched.