Feynman’s religion

Perhaps I should have titled this post differently: the physicist’s worldview. We may, effectively, assume that Richard Feynman’s Lectures on Physics represent mainstream sentiment, and he does get into philosophy—less or more liberally depending on the topic. Hence, yes, Feynman’s worldview is pretty much that of most physicists, I would think. So what is it? One of his more succinct statements is this:

“Often, people in some unjustified fear of physics say you cannot write an equation for life. Well, perhaps we can. As a matter of fact, we very possibly already have an equation to a sufficient approximation when we write the equation of quantum mechanics.” (Feynman’s Lectures, p. II-41-11)

He then jots down that equation that Schrödinger has on his grave (shown below). It is a differential equation: it relates the wavefunction (ψ) to its time derivative through the Hamiltonian coefficients that describe how physical states change with time (Hij), the imaginary unit (i) and Planck’s quantum of action (ħ).

hl_alpb_3453_ptplr

Feynman, and all modern academic physicists in his wake, claim this equation cannot be understood. I don’t agree: the explanation is not easy, and requires quite some prerequisites, but it is not anymore difficult than, say, trying to understand Maxwell’s equations, or the Planck-Einstein relation (E = ħ·ω = h·f).

In fact, a good understanding of both allows you to not only understand Schrödinger’s equation but all of quantum physics. The basics are this: the presence of the imaginary unit tells us the wavefunction is cyclical, and that it is an oscillation in two dimensions. The presence of Planck’s quantum of action in this equation tells us that such oscillation comes in units of ħ. Schrödinger’s wave equation as a whole is, therefore, nothing but a succinct representation of the energy conservation principle. Hence, we can understand it.

At the same time, we cannot, of course. We can only grasp it to some extent. Indeed, Feynman concludes his philosophical remarks as follows:

“The next great era of awakening of human intellect may well produce a method of understanding the qualitative content of equations. Today we cannot. Today we cannot see that the water flow equations contain such things as the barber pole structure of turbulence that one sees between rotating cylinders. We cannot see whether Schrödinger’s equation contains frogs, musical composers, or morality—or whether it does not. We cannot say whether something beyond it like God is needed, or not. And so we can all hold strong opinions either way.” (Feynman’s Lectures, p. II-41-12)

I think that puts the matter to rest—for the time being, at least. 🙂

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