Feynman: the collapse of society and the rise of cosmology

The Guardian has run excerpts from a new collection of Richard Feynman’s writings, Don’t You Have Time to Think?. In this, written in 1961, he talks about the future of human society and what could happen to physics. First, he’s pessimistic:

The future of physics depends on the circumstances of the rest of the world and is not merely a question of extrapolation of the present rate of progress into the future…. One of the most likely things, from a political and social point of view, is that we have soon a terrific war and a collapse…. Physics, fundamental physics, may possibly not recover….

There would be practical problems at that time that would occupy the attention of intelligent people. There would be no fun in it. The new discoveries wouldn’t come for a while.

It would not be useful. No one has yet thought of a use of the results of the experiences we have with the high-energy particles. And finally, it is possible that antagonism is produced by the terrible calamity: a universal antagonism toward physics and physicists as a result of the destruction.

Already, there is pressure on physics to be useful. The watershed came in the early 90s, with the cancellation of the Superconducting Super-Collider (SSC), when physicists, after living off of the reflected glory of, and indebtedness toward, geniuses like Feynman himself during the Manhattan project, finally realized we had to be able to justify our budgets to the government and the people, and not just to ourselves.

And of course, Feynman missed one source of “antagonism toward physics”: the rise of the religious right and the know-nothing fundamentalist attitudes that come with it.

But he also tried to be more optimistic:

Suppose there is no collapse. How, I don’t know, but suppose there is no collapse. Then what? Suppose we can imagine a society somewhat like our own continuing for a thousand years. (Ridiculous!)…

One possibility is that a final solution will be obtained. What I mean is that a set of fundamental laws will be found, such that each new experiment only results in checking laws already known, and it gets relatively more and more boring as we find that time after time nothing new is discovered that disagrees with the fundamental principles already obtained….

[Or,] the questions [could] become more difficult. How will it look then?… Discoveries are made more and more slowly, questions get harder and harder. More and more people find it a relatively uninteresting subject. So it is left in an incomplete state, with a few working very slowly at the edge.

It is possible, of course, that what we call physics will expand. I believe, for example, that physics will expand into the studies of astronomical history and cosmology…. What is the whole history of the development of the universe?… If the laws of physics change with absolute time, then there will be no way to separate the problems of formulating the laws and of finding the history.

This is exactly what has transpired in the nearly half-century since Feynman wrote this: cosmology has become a fully-fledged part of fundamental physics, and the astrophysical laboratory has become as important as terrestrial ones, as, as he predicted, data drips in from particle accelerators more and more slowly at greater and greater cost. We cosmologists are lucky, too, because we have an easier time hawking our wares to the public, with our beautiful pictures and the almost primeval human reaction to the celestial sphere.


One response to “Feynman: the collapse of society and the rise of cosmology”

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