To Thems That Have

Occasionally, I think of burning my opportunities of advancing in the physics profession — or, more likely, just burning my bridges with Geek Culture(TM) — by writing a paper entitled, “Richard Feynman’s Greatest Mistake”.

I did start drafting an essay I call “To Thems That Have, Shall Be Given More”. There are a sizable number of examples where Feynman gets credit for an idea that somebody else discovered first. It’s the rich-get-richer of science.

For example, various pop-science media say that Feynman had the idea that the Periodic Table has to stop at element 137, because (the reason varies from one version of the story to another). It is then said that if element 137 is ever synthesized, it should be named “feynmanium” to commemorate this.

Good joke, except that the issue was actually raised by Schiff, Snyder and Weinberg in 1939.

They saw that a crude calculation implied something wacky happens at element 137, and why the approximation involved in that calculation shouldn’t be taken too seriously. (Among other things, the nucleus shouldn’t be regarded as a pointlike particle of zero size.) By 1945, the issue was described as “well known“.

Another example: Feynman is widely credited with the idea of using the unitary time-evolution operators in quantum physics to perform computation. And he did discuss that, in a 1981 lecture (“Simulating physics with computers”).

But so did Benioff, in 1979.

Another example: The phrase “shut up and calculate!” (to summarize the attitudes many physicists have to philosophical matters, in particular the “meaning” of quantum mechanics).

That was N. David Mermin, who doesn’t even like the phrase very much.

A borderline case: Feynman is credited with the “sticky bead argument” for showing that gravitational waves carry energy. Take a pole, and have two beads able to slide back and forth along it, with a little friction. A passing gravitational wave will make the beads move back and forth, and the friction of the beads against the pole will generate heat. That energy had to come from somewhere; hence, the wave carries energy.

To the best of my research skills, Feynman was the first to make that version of the argument, which was vivid and influential. But earlier, Felix Pirani already had the idea of connecting two small test masses with a spring that has a little friction in it.

For goodness’ sake, the man had enough actual accomplishments in science that we don’t need to invent more.

(Originally posted on Mastodon. For the story of a minor but interesting mistake in the Feynman Lectures on Physics, see this old note.)