Sunday, May 27, 2018

When physics meets biology: a less known Feynman

More Feynman centenary stuff.

From Cornell University's Physics arXiv repository:

When physics meets biology: a less known Feynman
We discuss a less known aspect of Feynman's multifaceted scientific work, centered about his interest in molecular biology, which came out around 1959 and lasted for several years. After a quick historical reconstruction about the birth of molecular biology, we focus on Feynman's work on genetics with Robert S. Edgar in the laboratory of Max Delbruck, which was later quoted by Francis Crick and others in relevant papers, as well as in Feynman's lectures given at the Hughes Aircraft Company on biology, organic chemistry and microbiology, whose notes taken by the attendee John Neer are available. An intriguing perspective comes out about one of the most interesting scientists of the XX century.
Comments: On the centenary of the birth of Richard P. Feynman (May 11, 1918 - February 15, 1988)
Subjects: History and Philosophy of Physics (physics.hist-ph); Biological Physics (; Popular Physics (physics.pop-ph); Other Quantitative Biology (q-bio.OT)
Cite as: arXiv:1805.03854 [physics.hist-ph]
(or arXiv:1805.03854v1 [physics.hist-ph] for this version)
Submission history From: Salvatore Esposito [view email]
[v1] Thu, 10 May 2018 06:59:00 GMT (157kb)

arXiv download (11 page PDF)
Richard P. Feynman has been – no doubt – one of the most intriguing characters of XX century physics (Mehra 1994) . As well known to any interested people, this applies not only to his work as a theoretical physicist – ranging from the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics to quantum electrodynamics (granting him the Nobel prize in Physics in 1965), and from helium superfluidity to the parton model in particle physics – , but also to his own life, a number of anecdotes being present in the literature (Mehra 1994; Gleick 1992; Brown and Rigden 1993; Sykes 1994; Gribbin and Gribbin 1997; Leighton 2000; Mlodinov 2003; Feynman 2005; Henderson 2011; Krauss 2001 ) , including his own popular books (Feynman 1985; 1988).

If the pictorial representation of Feynman diagrams in quantum field theory is probably his most famous contribution to science (but, certainly, not the only important one), his peculiar life is likely not at all less known to the public due to his involvement in the Manhattan project for the building of the atomic bomb as well as in the panel investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; physics popularization as well as pedagogical work; political issues and – last but not least – his drum playing and similar extravagant things.

Feynman’s genuine interest in the study of Nature often led him to particularly distant areas of research, whose borders were easily crossed by his own curiosity. For example, after the completion of his 1955 work on polaron physics (Feynman 1962) , Feynman decided to spend his summer time at Caltech, making excursions into different fields ranging from engineering to biology. Robert Hellwarth, a research fellow of Feynman at Caltech, moved to Hughes Aircraft Company (1955 - 1965) and arranged for Feynman to give there lectures for scientists, engineers and technicians on subjects of mutual interest. Feynman continued lecturing regularly at Hughes for many years on a variety of topics, ranging from astrophysics and cosmology to classical and quantum electrodynamics, relativity, scattering theory, as well as mathematical methods in physics and even molecular biology. Feynman’s interest in biology began around 1959, and culminated in the publication of a relevant paper on genetics in 1962 (Edgar et al. 1962) . His peculiar guiding view was that “there is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms according to the laws of physics” (Feynman, Leighton and Sands 2005) .

The first occasion given to him to reason about such things was probably the talk he delivered at the Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society in December 1969 at Caltech, curiously titled “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” (Feynman 1960) . Though a popular talk, it is credited as introducing the concept of nanotechnology, since he highlighted the problem of manipulating and controlling things on a small scale. Particularly interesting is Feynman’s reasoning about it: “I am inspired by the biological phenomena in which chemical forces are used in a repetitious fashion to produce all kinds of weird effects” (Feynman 1960).

Feynman spent his entire sabbatical year 1959 - 1960 at Caltech working on biology. With Robert S. Edgar , he worked in the laboratory of Max Delbruck on a project about the characterization of back - mutations, while with Matt Meselson he worked on ribosomes. Given the relevant results he obtained, Feynman was invited to give a seminar on his work at Harvard, where he met James Watson, Francis Crick and others. Interesting enough, a key paper by Crick et al . (1961) quoted Feynman’s work with Edgar, which was then published in 1962 (Edgar et al . 1962)...

We only have a couple posts referencing "There's plenty of room at the bottom", I thought we had more: 
Vaclav Smil: "Cellphones as a fifth-order elaboration of Maxwell’s theory"
Gates Puts Feynman Lectures Online