Monday, July 11, 2011

Tomonaga and the bottle

From Freeman Dyson's new NYRB piece on Feynman:
Feynman had looked forward to meeting Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, the Japanese physicist who shared the Nobel Prize with him. Tomonaga had independently made some of the same discoveries as Feynman, five years earlier, in the total isolation of wartime Japan. [...] Feynman and Tomonaga shared three outstanding qualities: emotional toughness, intellectual integrity, and a robust sense of humor.

To Feynman’s dismay, Tomonaga failed to appear in Stockholm. The Ottaviani-Myrick book has Tomonaga explaining what happened:
Although I sent a letter saying that I would be “pleased to attend,” I loathed the thought of going, thinking that the cold would be severe, as the ceremony was to be held in December, and that the inevitable formalities would be tiresome. After I was named a Nobel Prize awardee, many people came to visit, bringing liquor. I had barrels of it. One day, my father’s younger brother, who loved whiskey, happened to stop by and we both began drinking gleefully. We drank a little too much, and then, seizing the opportunity that my wife had gone out shopping, I entered the bathroom to take a bath. There I slipped and fell down, breaking six of my ribs… It was a piece of good luck in that unhappy incident.
After Tomonaga recovered from his injuries, he was invited to England to receive another high honor requiring a formal meeting with royalty. This time he did not slip in the bathtub. He duly appeared at Buckingham Palace to shake hands with the English Queen. The Queen did not know that he had failed to travel to Stockholm. She innocently asked him whether he had enjoyed his meeting with the King of Sweden. Tomonaga was totally flummoxed. He could not bring himself to confess to the Queen that he had got drunk and broken his ribs. He said that he had enjoyed his conversation with the King very much. He remarked afterward that for the rest of his life he would be carrying a double burden of guilt, first for getting drunk, and second for telling a lie to the Queen of England.

Dyson is on paper the obvious choice for a piece about Feynman; as usual there's a lot of recycling, but with an interesting twist. In an old NYRB review of a previous Feynman book, Dyson had categorized Feynman with Einstein and Hawking as physicists who have become "Wise Men" to the public. In the new iteration of this remark, Feynman has provisionally been dropped from the list, the Wise Men are "superstars," but the point is spelled out nicely:
Lesser lights such as Carl Sagan and Neil Tyson and Richard Dawkins have a big public following, but they are not in the same class as Einstein and Hawking. Sagan, Tyson, and Dawkins have fans who understand their message and are excited by their science. Einstein and Hawking have fans who understand almost nothing about science and are excited by their personalities.
(A point worth making is that Einstein and Hawking would arguably have been substantially less revered if they stood for something in the public mind that the public cared about -- evolution, say, or whether the universe had a beginning. Being a polemical figure reduces one's stature. The closest thing to Hawking in recent news was Grisha Perelman, but as a mathematician he is somehow too peripheral. To become the relevant kind of cultural figure one needs to be cartoonish and nonthreatening. Though arguably physics has never been threatening.)

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A bit of news today that will please many physicists: the journal Physical Review Letters (the Berkeley of the physics publishing hierarchy; the most prestigious journal that also publishes a lot of articles) has switched from a 4-page limit to a word count limit. Objectively this is reasonable and frankly somewhat belated; I believe (or at least hope) that the journals also intend to make articles available as single-column HTML files, it is extremely annoying to read two-column text on a laptop. I have mixed feelings about the new limits: I had just begun to get the hang of maximizing the number of words you could cram into 4pp. by rewriting each paragraph so as to have it end at the end of a line.

8 comments:

zbs said...

Dyson is such a weird writer.

I think Sagan was at least as prominent in culture as Feynman apart from the short-lived legend of the Challenger inquiry. Hawking is in the same class, really, though his contemporaneity makes him seem more immediate (and his physical condition makes him more evocative). Einstein is in another class altogether, someone people might as well be lighting icons to.

Sarang said...

Agree re weirdness, and would say badness, of Dyson qua writer.

But I disagree re Sagan -- I mean, like, who the fuck was Carl Sagan? I have never heard of him except as a superannuated scifi FIGURE from the 70s or something. Does ANYONE think of him? I have no idea of what he ever did except write a bunch of shitty books with stupid one-word titles. Feynman at least has the advantage of technical immortality -- enough things named after him -- to assure a cult following in perpetuity.

I think the point re Einstein, Hawking, and Feynman qua persona is that they plausibly represent Character Types, or Humours, or something, that have nothing to do at all with what they were associated with. Sagan I think of as associated with space: I think most people would. Is that true of Feynman or Hawking?

zbs said...

The gate keeps me out of the earlier article, so I can't speak to what degree he means 'Humours' except by what you've given, but it doesn't seem especially clear.

It's important to remember about Sagan that he had a successful television show, so his cultural stature at the time was assured. He explained the universe, much as Hawking did with "A Brief History" (though less comprehensively and in a much more conventional way.) Anyway, surely Feynman is associated with decaying rubber or QED, depending on who you're talking to. The wacky bongo-playing hippie-guy aspect of Feynman is not widely known beyond the latter category I suspect.

Sarang said...

See, I think of Hawking's cultural status as almost exclusively a product of his life story. (The success of the book(s) can be traced to this.) Similarly, Einstein was "the smartest man alive" and wore socks of different colors. Feynman broadly falls into this class of legend, though admittedly he has always been a cult figure compared with E. or H. Most people who have read _Surely You're Joking_ etc. have the foggiest idea of what QED is _about_ -- certainly not a vivid enough one to associate Feynman with it in the sense that, say, Dawkins is associated with evolution or Sagan was with space. His fame, to the extent that it exists, rests on the anecdotes and on the _Feynman lectures_ on introductory physics, which are probably more displayed than read. And the peculiar cultural status of these lectures has to do with their consonance with the rest of the Feynman shtick: they are clever and colloquial.

Now I think this kind of case is different in kind from that of Dawkins, who is famous among the public for work that is basically taken on its own terms. This is a separate issue from the overall level of one's fame; I agree that Dyson might be conflating the two but one needn't in general.

Elisa said...

Surely Einstein and Hawking *do* stand for things that the public cares about (and would largely disagree with) -- they just don't know/understand what they stand for? Or by "stand for" do you mean that almost everyone who knows their names knows what theories they espouse?

Sarang said...

Yeah I agree, the public's view of Einstein was basically unrelated to whatever Einstein happened to believe; in fact they probably couldn't TELL you what Einstein thought about most issues. Similarly, for the most part, with Hawking and Feynman. (Arguably E. and H. benefit from skillful use of the word "God" but I think the public's conception of them is weakly related to this.) On the other hand when it comes to Dawkins, if you have heard about the guy you know he's a militant atheist who is like yay evolution. It is the difference between a public intellectual and an intellectual who happens to be a celebrity.

zbs said...

It comes as no surprise that my sense of culture here excludes the science/scientists completely and Sarang's (I think) includes them here and there disproportionately.

I am also disqualified (or especially qualified) in that I don't really know what Hawkings' contribution is, apart from an adolescent-poseur reading of his big popsci book.

Sarang said...

I don't know to what extent we are in disagreement. I don't mean to defend Dyson's claim re relative cultural prominence of Einstein/Feynman/Hawking and Dawkins/Sagan, only to say that the public is much more well-informed and interested in the lives than the works of the former group, but the latter group are to some extent defined by their most popular pop sci books.

Hawking's big contribution (apart from a bunch of v. nice technical papers in general relativity) was the Hawking radiation business, i.e. the idea that black holes lose mass over time and eventually evaporate. (He goes on about this, rather opaquely, in one of the chapters of _Brief History._) Apart from the neatness of the idea I believe it might have been the first real prediction made by "quantum gravity."