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HOME > PAST ISSUE > March-April 2005 > Article Detail

FEATURE ARTICLE

Physics and Feynman's Diagrams

In the hands of a postwar generation, a tool intended to lead quantum electrodynamics out of a decades-long morass helped transform physics

David Kaiser

Figure 1. Feynman diagrams were invented in 1948...Click to Enlarge Image

As theoretical physics blossomed during the 1930s and 1940s, so did the problem of infinities: The equations physicists constructed to answer fundamental questions about the origins of the universe and the interactions of light, energy and matter led again and again to frustrating non-answers. Richard Feynman offered a tool for solving this problem: using a diagram for specifying the terms of the equations. The idea did not catch on at first, but soon the diagrams began spreading, thanks to Freeman Dyson's work in deriving and explaining the new bookkeeping devices and showing a generation of postdocs how to use them. Curiously, they became most popular in fields of physics for which they were less suited—particularly in theories of nuclear-particle interactions.


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