High Energy Phenomena & Meson Theories by Richard Feynman: Rare Lectures from the Dawn of Particle Physics

"You can't say A is made of B or vice versa. All mass is interaction."

High Energy Phenomena and Meson Theories by Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman is one of our favourite scientists here at Alembic, and we're pleased to present a true Feynman rarity - a copy of the first and only edition of High Energy Phenomena and Meson Theories, a collection of lecture notes on the emerging field of particle physics, from a course he taught during his first year as a professor at Caltech in 1951. The notes were compiled by three graduate students, who made what was probably a very small number of informal mimeographed copies for colleagues (the text was never reviewed or corrected by Feynman). As far as we can determine, this was the first time that a Feynman lecture was published in any form, appearing twelve years before the famous three-volume Lectures on Physics. A global library search through WorldCat locates only four copies, one each at Caltech and Stanford and two at UCLA.

Richard Feynman

The origin of this volume lies in the exciting position of the sciences after the Second World War. Government investment had not only contributed to the war's end but led to important advancements in computing & theoretical physics, among other fields. Now in peacetime the government continued to pour money into university science programs, and Manhattan Project researchers disbursed to civilian institutions where they had the money and time to investigate the great questions that had been put on hold during the war. After the Manhattan Project's conclusion Feynman joined the faculty at Cornell, where he made the breakthrough in quantum electrodynamics that would earn him the Nobel Prize. But he was also restless. "There were entanglements with women: Feynman pursued them and dropped them, or tried to, with increasingly public frustration... He never settled into any house or apartment... He seemed to think that Cornell was alternately too large and too small — an isolated village with only a diffuse interest in science outside the confines of its physics department. Furthermore, Hans Bethe would always be the great man of physics at Cornell" (Gleick, Genius p. 277). So Feynman readily accepted when Robert Bacher, an acquaintance from the Manhattan Project and the new head of the physics department at Caltech, offered him a job in 1949. He spent the rest of his career in California.

The course recorded here, High Energy Phenomena and Meson Theories, took place between January and March 1951 and must have been one of Feynman’s earliest teaching contributions at Caltech, just after he returned from his sabbatical year in Brazil. It was "aimed at an advanced audience", probably graduate students and fellow professors (Gross, "Pictures and Pedagogy: The Role of Diagrams in Feynman's Early Lectures”). High energy physics, the study of elementary particles and the structure of matter via high-speed collisions in accelerators, was then at the forefront of scientific research. "Feynman had reached maturity at a moment when the community of theoretical physicists shared a great unsolved problem, such a weighty knot that the enterprise could scarcely move forward until it was untied or cut. Now that quantum electrodynamics had been solved [by Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonaga], no single problem seemed as universally compelling" (Gleick p. 295). As physicists "pushed more energetically inside the atom, they were watching the breakup of the prewar particle picture. With each new particle, the dream of a manageable number of building blocks faded. In this continually subdividing world, what was truly elementary? What was made of what? 'Principles,' Feynman had written in the tiny address book he carried with him. 'You can't say A is made of B or vice versa. All mass is interaction' (Gleick, pp. 282-283).

These lectures relies heavily Feynman Diagrams, the famous notational structure that Feynman developed during his Nobel prize-winning work on quantum electrodynamics, and that he had first presented only three years before at the Pocono Conference. Though Feynman diagrams would eventually “redefine physics”, they were not yet fully accepted by the scientific community. At the same time, their notation and uses were undergoing a series of metamorphoses as they were adopted in fields distinct from quantum electrodynamics. Indeed, one of the first and most significant of these was particle physics. “Dozens of new nuclear particles, such as mesons (now known to be composite particles that are bound states of the nuclear constituents called quarks and their antimatter counterparts), were turning up in the new government-funded particle accelerators of postwar America. Charting the behavior of all these new particles thus became a topic of immense experimental as well as theoretical interest. Yet the diagrams did not have an obvious place in the new studies. Feynman and Dyson had honed their diagrammatic techniques for the case of weakly interacting electrodynamics, but nuclear particles interact strongly… Precisely for this reason, Feynman cautioned Enrico Fermi late in 1951, ‘Don’t believe any calculation in meson theory which uses a Feynman diagram!’” (Kaiser, “Physics and Feynman’s Diagrams”, American Scientist, volume 93, 2005). This volume is thus a key historical resource for understanding the evolution of Feynman Diagrams and their uses in fields beyond quantum electrodynamics, in particular how that shift was understood by their own creator.

The notes themselves were recorded and printed by three Caltech graduate students: Carl W. Helstrom, who became one of the pioneers of quantum information theory; Malvin A Ruderman, who is today on the faculty of Columbia University, where he specialises in "collapsed objects in astrophysics, especially neutron stars" (Columbia faculty bio); and William Karzas, who went on to work with Murray Gell-Mann at the RAND Corporation.

This copy has been handsomely bound and bears the attractive mid-century bookplate and inked initials of American physicist John “Jack” Pirnie Davidson (1924-2010). Davidson earned his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley and his PhD at Washington University in St. Louis, where he worked under Eugene Feenberg and also campaigned for the university’s desegregation. Later he was a researcher at Columbia University, the Brazilian Centre for Physical Research, the Joint Establishment for Nuclear Energy Research in Lillestrom, Norway, and the University of Kansas. In Norway he contemplated the possibility that a shipboard nuclear reactor might breach containment and “melt-down” through the hull, the first use of that term in the scientific literature (University of Kansas obituary).

Overall this is a superb piece of science history - likely Feynman's first published lectures, produced long before he was famous, and incorporating both the brand new field of particle physics and some of the earliest uses of the evolving Feynman diagrams. With an excellent provenance and attractive period binding that only add to the appeal of this exceptionally rare publication.

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Laura Massey
Laura Massey


Alembic founder Laura Massey holds a bachelor's degree in the history of science from Georgia Tech and a master's in book history (focusing on medieval and early modern scientific and medical books,) from the Institute of English Studies at the University of London. She has worked as a cataloguer, bookseller, and blogger in libraries and bookshops in the United States and Britain.

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