Bringing Some Culture to the Physicists: Nina Byers & Richard Feynman

November 24, 2015

Bringing Some Culture to the Physicists: Nina Byers & Richard Feynman

This first edition of Richard Feynman's The Theory of Fundamental Processes is from the library of the pioneering female physicist Nina Byers (1930-2014), who made important contributions to particle physics and superconductivity and had a humorous personal connection with Feynman, earning her a mention in Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman.

Byers received her bachelors in physics at Berkeley and then studied under Murray Gell-Mann and Gregor Wenzl at Chicago, completing her thesis on pi-mesic atoms in 1956. In 1961 (the same year that this book was published) she joined the faculty at UCLA where she worked on particle physics as “the first and the only female in the Physics department for 20 years” (Los Angeles Times obituary). Byers remained at UCLA for the rest of her career, through for several years she split her time between Los Angeles and the UK after she was appointed the first female physics lecturer at Oxford.

During the 1970s and 80s Byers and her students were engaged in cutting edge research on areas such as gauge theories of the electroweak interactions, quarkonium, and bound state systems (UCLA Physics & Astronomy department obituary). At the same time she was deeply involved with the American Physical Society and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Nina served as President of the APS Forum on History of Physics, a position earned through her dedication to promoting the understanding of two weighty subjects: the role of women in physics, and the examination of physicists’ role in the development and deployment of nuclear weapons” (UCLA obituary). One of Byer’s most significant projects in this regard was the web archive Contributions of 20th Century Women to Physics, which includes detailed information on 83 female physicists. She also edited the volume Out of the Shadows: Contributions of Twentieth-Century Women to Physics (2006), and was a committed campaigner against nuclear weapons.

In a lifetime of accomplishments, perhaps the most unusual aspect of her legacy is her warm and comical appearance in Feynman’s classic memoir Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman:

Nina Byers, a professor at UCLA, became in charge of the physics colloquium sometime in the early seventies. The colloquia are normally a place where physicists from other universities come and talk pure technical stuff. But partly as a result of the atmosphere of that particular period of time, she got the idea that the physicists needed more culture, so she thought she would arrange something along those lines: Since Los Angeles is near Mexico, she would have a colloquium on the mathematics and astronomy of the Mayans - the old civilization of Mexico.

(Remember my attitude to culture: This kind of thing would have driven me crazy if it were in my university!)

She started looking for a professor to lecture on the subject, and couldn't find anybody at UCLA who was quite an expert. She telephoned various places and still couldn't find anybody.

Then she remembered Professor Otto Neugebauer, of Brown University, the great expert on Babylonian mathematics. She telephoned him in Rhode Island and asked if he knew someone on the West Coast who could lecture on Mayan mathematics and astronomy.

‘Yes,’ he said. ‘I do. He’s not a professional anthropologist or a historian; he’s an amateur. But he certainly knows a lot about it. His name is Richard Feynman.’

She nearly died! She’s trying to bring some culture to the physicists, and the only way to do it is to get a physicist!” (Feynman, "Bringing Some Culture to the Physicists", Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman).

Feynman was happy to help, as he had spent time studying the astronomical mathematics in the Dresden Codex following a trip to Mexico. The lecture was very well received, and afterwards “Professor Byers presented me with some beautiful colour reproductions” of the Codex.

In fact, the two became good friends and remained close for the rest of Feynman's life. In 1986 Byers was interviewed for an AP piece on Feynman that was published soon after his work on the Challenger disaster. Describing his simple experiment with the o-ring, she said, “That is so typical of Richard. He loves to solve problems and is very interested in understanding how things work.” Later in the piece she recounted his brush with mortality during cancer treatment and how pleased he was by the outpouring of support from the CalTech and UCLA communities. “‘You know, they really like me,’ she recalled him saying with emotion” (Leary, Warren for the AP. “Puzzles Propel Physicist with Penchant for Probing”, The Telegraph, April 13th, 1986.).

The present text, The Theory of Fundamental Processes, was one of Feynman’s first two published books, appearing in 1961 along with Quantum Electrodynamics. Both were lightly edited versions of lectures transcribed by students. The books became influential within the physics community and contributed to Feynman’s growing celebrity.

As a particle physicist, Byers would have been particularly interested in Theory of Fundamental Processes, a key work in her field. A price sticker on the lower cover indicates that she purchased this copy at the UCLA student shop, and the ink stains, pencilled notes on the cover and in the contents list, and other signs of use confirm that that she probably consulted it as a reference work, and perhaps even used it in planning lectures or as a textbook for her advanced students. This volume is a wonderful association copy linking the “half-genius, half-buffoon” trickster god of modern science with one of the great female pioneers of physics.