[Byers, Nina] Feynman, Richard

The Theory of Fundamental Processes

  • First edition, first printing. From the library of 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. Byers was put in charge of a series of physics colloquia at UCLA and wanted to include some speakers on other aspects of culture. Looking around for an expert on Mayan mathematics, she was hitting dead ends until another professor recommended Feynman, who had worked on the Dresden Codex in his spare time. As Feynman recalled it, "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's talk was very well received, and to thank him, Byers gave him some handsome colour reproductions of the Codex. The two became good friends and remained close for the rest of Feynman's life.

    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 at the cutting edge of 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 used it as a textbook for her advanced students. A wonderful association copy.

  • A Lecture Note Volume. Notes Corrected by H. T. Yura. New York: W. A. Benjamin, Inc., 1961. Octavo. Original cream wrappers printed in blue, black, and orange. Ownership signature of UCLA physicist Nina Byers to the upper wrapper, UCLA student store price ticket to the lower wrapper. Some additional notes by Byers in pencil on the upper wrapper and check marks by chapters in the contents list. A little creasing, rubbing, and toning to the wrappers, some light ink stains on the lower cover. A very good copy.

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