Inventor, Futurist, Genius: Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla

His coolness is unmatched, but the man himself is far more enigmatic than cool. Nikola Tesla is known for being as awesome as scientists get. He was and remains the ultimate mad scientist – calm, mysterious with a will-get-the-job-done attitude and an insane futurist. He conceived of transferring energy wirelessly when people had just about gotten to know about conduction through wires. His great dream of intercontinental wireless transmission of power is still unfulfilled and remains extremely futuristic. Tesla, fulfilling his archetypical mad scientist image, died penniless and in debt.

Happy birthday sir!

Too Far Ahead of His Times

Time and time again, and the world is realizing this now, Tesla has been proven too ahead of the time. Tesla himself knew:

My project was retarded by laws of nature. The world was not prepared for it. It was too far ahead of time. But the same laws will prevail in the end and make it a triumphal success.

Tesla is the pioneer of the modern alternating current generator and the transmission/supply system, the critical components of the worldwide power grid that we see today. He was the greatest electrical engineer the world has ever seen. Not only that, he was the founder of the field of electrical engineering.

Let’s go a level deeper. He wasn’t just an electrical engineer who pioneered the electrical supply system – he created the item that was to be supplied through the lines. In other words, he was the father of Alternating Current. The next time you switch on any electrical device connected to the main power supply of your house/office, say a small thanks to Tesla. He had won the ‘War of Currents’ with Thomas Edison, who wanted DC power to be circulated. Edison, Edison…

Enter Edison

Yes, Edison was no stick in the mud – he wasn’t called a genius for no reason. And he has been vilified in popular culture for no small reason either. Tesla’s famous tussle with Edison meant that Tesla’s genius never got its true value and recognition, unable to come out from under Edison’s clout. And really, Tesla didn’t try hard enough. Tesla and Edison never saw eye-to-eye ever again.

I often doubt whether truth always triumphs. Even if it does – and always – does it do so in time? Not so for Tesla. His genius, once recognized, was never again accepted. Maybe the world can see only so much of a good thing. Maybe being born twice is not for one lifetime.

Living in the Future

Tesla, a genius? What genius?

He identified – and made a source for – X-Rays way back in 1887, a full decade before the year which the world thinks X-Rays were officially discovered. Why the silence then? Primarily because most of his research work was lost in a March 1895 fire and also because he didn’t want to publish anything. He even sent X-Ray photos of his own hand to Roentgen.

Too much for the world in that era. A reconstructed Tesla coil, it measures 18 meters in diameter and can send electricity through 27 meters.

Unfortunately, and this has been demonstrated over and over again, science is not meant for people staying mum.
He felt disgusted by the newer crop of researchers:

That is the trouble with many inventors; they lack patience. They lack the willingness to work a thing out slowly and clearly and sharply in their mind, so that they can actually ‘feel it work.’ We all make mistakes, and it is better to make them before we begin.

Tesla built the first radio transmitter in 1897. But wait, he then built a radio-controlled boat for the military. The military didn’t recognize the significance.

He spoke futuristically on Edison’s bulb:

I predict that very shortly the old-fashioned incandescent lamp, having a filament heated to brightness by the passage of electric current through it, will entirely disappear.

Tesla’s obsession with long distance telegraphy increased with years. He experimented with lightning, and spectacularly so. His meticulous notes in his diaries reveal his level of planning – and his level of daring. Of his many setups, probably the most terrifying – and the most popular – is the ‘Magnifying transmitter’. Transferring millions of volts across several meters, while still ensuring safety is what Tesla was going in for. The world didn’t recognize him. It was too naïve.

Magnifying transmitter. Taken by Tesla himself. The shot was taken using multiple exposure times. (Courtesy: Wikimedia)

No, Tesla was no peace advocate. He built the ‘death ray’, a weapon capable of directed energy release. The death ray would …

send concentrated beams of particles through the free air, of such tremendous energy that they will bring down a fleet of 10,000 enemy airplanes at a distance of 200 miles from a defending nation’s border and will cause armies to drop dead in their tracks.

Madness to Senility

This madness would continue, but it was eating into Tesla himself. He began to develop Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) manifesting in many ways, such as his extreme fondness for the number 3. He would circle his lab 3 times before entering. His hatred – and probably irrational fear – for round objects or clinking jewelry is well-known. Even professionally, he was faltering. He criticized Einstein’s relativity on grounds which were sometimes quite irrational. They weren’t taken into account in the science circles. Tesla had run aground of his ‘genius’ tag. He had simply gone mad.

Tesla would feed a flock of pigeons, of which one – a beautiful white pigeon – was his favourite. His OCD grew worse, as can be easily seen from what he says:

I have been feeding pigeons, thousands of them for years. But there was one, a beautiful bird, pure white with light grey tips on its wings; that one was different. It was a female. I had only to wish and call her and she would come flying to me. I loved that pigeon as a man loves a women, and she loved me. As long as I had her, there was a purpose to my life.

Hardly a statement from someone who is called the greatest electrical engineer of all times. Tesla’s duration on this planet was over, just the formality of death loomed over his head.

That came peacefully enough on the 7th of January, 1943 in the midst of a global conflict – the Second World War – which he had predicted would be inevitable. Like most of his life, he died alone.

Happy Birthday Nikola Tesla, the genius. We’ll meet again in the future.

Richard Feynman Was A Suspected Soviet Spy, Say Declassified FBI Documents

So Richard Feynman was a Communist, or at least that’s what the FBI might want us to think. The Feynman files have been released and they reveal information about the FBI’s tabs on the world famous scientist. The recently revealed FBI files, all documented in completeness by MuckRock, show the extent to which the FBI went to in pursuing Feynman.

Why put Feynman on the radar?

So why Richard Feynman? What did one of the most brilliant physicists ever to walk the planet, someone who had been intricately involved in the American atom bomb project – the Manhattan Project – do to have his name tagged by the FBI? The most convincing reason appears to be his “extreme charm” and “unusual personal magnetism which enables him to charm or fascinate individual persons or groups.” Even his personal distrust of religion was a cause for concern of the FBI.

The Nobel winner was close to people like project leader Robert Oppenheimer, who came under the FBI scanner right after the war for his leftist links and views, and Klaus Fuchs, who was outed as a Soviet spy, trying to steal nuclear defense secrets from the Manhattan Project.


The links to the declassified FBI documents as given by MuckRock.

MuckRock Link 1: “The Feynman Files”

MuckRock Link 2: “Feynman: The Master of Deception?”

How it all started

Suspicions were raised by one FBI-sponsored interviewer, who swore on the Bible and reported:

I do not know—but I believe that Richard Feynman is either a Communist or very strongly pro-Communist—and as such is a very definite security risk. This man is, in my opinion, an extremely complex and dangerous person, and a very dangerous person to have in a position of public trust, particularly a position that so vitally affects the safety and welfare of this nation

So that’s nice. Feynman was to be either himself – brash, arrogant, mischevious and blindingly brilliant – or he had to be a Russian spy. His fame as the mischevious lock-picker in the Manhattan project did not help his image. His past came back to haunt him, as an innocent association with the “Young People’s Socialist League” during his high school years figured a number of times in the extensive documents.

His brilliance worked against him. The FBI enlisted a few pointers about Feynman, which included, amongst others, his “technical ability to analyse scientific data”, his “experience in picking locks”, his “experience in devising and deciphering coded messages” and his “unusual ability to influence people”. (See below)

All the ways how Feynman was 'dangerous'. A page from the declassified documents. (Courtesy: MuckRock)

Dislike for all things bureaucratic

Feynman’s intense dislike of all things bureaucratic and his love for all things academic also served against him. Why would a loyal, intelligent American reject all lucrative government positions and then settle for some faculty position, which will involve teaching responsibilities and also offer him much lesser pay? But then, what do bureaucrats understand the beauty of the Universe as a physicist sees it? How do they understand the joy of teaching? What about the ecstasy of knowing something deep about the Universe that no one else in the world knows about at the moment? How can anyone understand the feeling of being Richard Feynman?

Serious Trouble

Trouble really started with an invitation from the Soviets to a physics conference in Moscow in 1955. Feynman hesitated and even informed the State Department of the invitation. He wrote back to the Soviets saying that he was “unable to give a definite answer”. The FBI did not openly get involved, but the State Department did not respond to Feynman’s letter. The first notification from Feynman was followed by two more; none of the three received any reply from the authorities.

Finally Feynman got fed up and decided to take the matter into his own hands. After nearly four months of just sitting waiting for a reply, Feynman replied to the Soviet administration saying that he “shall accept the invitation” and that he was merely waiting for the passport to be renewed. The U.S. State Department again stalled this procedure.

In spite of Feynman’s growing displeasure – and his openness to reveal it in letters – the State Department kept him hanging for two more months. When the reply did come, it was a disappointing “we urge you to decline the invitation”, but there was no non-clearance or directive against him. The government couldn’t act directly against a man, who was, on the other hand, brashly against the government work ethics.

History repeats and it is often ironic

It is indeed ironic that NASA, another American govt. Agency, would, 30 years later, during the Challenger disaster investigation, turn to the Nobel Winner to be a part of the investigation team. The irony deepens since this would be a very man who would crack open the case and expose NASA and its bureaucracy.

Feynman during the press meet after the Challenger disaster enquiry. He was demonstrating the brittle nature of the O-rings.

The ultimate rockstar of physics could never fit the mould.

No Ordinary Genius: Wishing Richard Feynman A Very Happy Birthday

The following biographical article is about the genius Richard P. Feynman on the account of his birthday on the 11th of May. Wishing the great man a very happy birthday.

It is different with the magicians. Even after we understand what they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest calibre. – Mark Kac

If it’s a boy, he’s going to be a scientist’

Richard Feynman (pronounced, appropriately, as ‘fine man’) was born to Melville and Lucille Feynman, on 11th May, 1918 in Far Rockaway, New York. His parents had already predicted the future of their son he was going to be a scientist. By the end of high school and while in MIT for his bachelor degree in Physics, he was already fulfilling this prophecy. What they did not know was that their son would become one of the greatest of all times and lay down the groundwork for the most successful theory known to all of science. He would become to the second half of twentieth century physics what Einstein was to the first half.

The Feynman Algorithm

Later, people would wonder at the simple algorithm that Feynman used to follow for solving different problems in physics. Nobel Laureate Murray Gell-Mann, his rival at Caltech, outlined the Feynman algorithm:

  1. Write down the problem
  2. Think real hard (scratch your forehead a bit, if needed)
  3. Write down the solution

The only downside to this procedure is its limited use to most other people. Feynman himself said of his method: What one fool can do, another can too.

MIT, Marriage, Least Action, and his First Paper

In MIT, Feynman worked under the guidance of John Wheeler, a vibrant fearless man, only about 4 years older. Feynman enjoyed the talks they had and soon learned enough of mathematics to outdo Wheeler himself. They worked on an electromagnetic theory, worrying about the infinite self-energies of charged point particles, removing the entire field framework and replacing them by action-at-a-point mechanisms, an extremely bold step against the tide of modern physics. The Wheeler-Feynman theory was well received when it was presented by Feynman to an audience comprising illustrious personalities like Einstein, Pauli, von Neumann and Wigner. A decade later, the theory would be proved wrong, and Feynman would send a letter to Wheeler saying Guess we were wrong about the absorber theory’ and get no response from him.

In the meantime, he was introduced to a physical concept that would change the course of his life the Principle of Least Action. His mathematics teacher, Mr. Bader, noticing him to be fidgety in class, introduced the concept. Feynman fell in love with it and the marriage would last for the rest of his life. He had already fallen in love with a girl Arline Greenbaum and they would also be married in a few years, but that would end in tragedy.

The principle of least action is simple. Total energy for a system can be defined as the sum of kinetic and potential energies. If the system is isolated, the total energy remains constant.

A particle will only follow the true path. The other paths don't give least action - only the true path does.

A quantity, known as the Lagrangian, is defined as kinetic energy minus potential energy. This is not a constant quantity. In fact this depends on the path a particle takes. Action is defined as the sum of Lagrangian calculated at different points in the path over the entire path. (This continuous sum is referred to as an integral). Now, here’s the catch. You can calculate the action for many millions of paths. The least value of action will come from the path that the particle actually takes. In other words, a particle always takes the path of least action.

But, Feynman asked, is that the only path quantum particles take, or are contributions from other paths also important? Before he could answer this question, his country needed him. In a fit of patriotic fervor, he joined the Manhattan Project. He was also concerned about his fiancé’s suddenly deteriorating health. She had Lymphatic Tuberculosis. Feynman took as much care of her as he could. They decided to get married, and, despite opposition from his parents, they did. Arline died just after the war ended. Feynman did not cry for her; he was prepared for this. Later, he would see a dress in London, and, thinking that Arline would have looked good in it, burst out. In his last letter to Arline, which he wrote after her death, he ends with the poignant “PS: Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address”.

The Manhattan Project

Feynman played a major part in the Manhattan Project his first brush with real calculations, throwing out the idealizations often made in theoretical physics. He amazed people with his math skills, entertained people by showing tricks he could do with a pencil and, most famously, by cracking safes! He felt no guilt or remorse about the bomb. Later, however, he would often mentally question the perceived futility of any architectural constructions. Didn’t they know that an atom bomb could instantly destroy all?

The Crowning Glory

After receiving his Ph.D. during the war, Feynman was free to develop the key ideas of his own theory. What if the electron followed all possible paths from a source to a destination? If the electron, or photon, went through both slits in a double-slit experiment or through all three slits in a triple-slit experiment, should it not go through all possible points in space, while propagating through free space? (Think about it: Free space means an infinite number of slits! It should go through all of them!) This led him onto a new approach to quantum mechanics, which modern physicists think is THE approach the path integral formulation. It’s quite technical, but the basic idea is the principle of least action. Contributions from all paths need to be considered, not just the path the particles take classically. The electron sniffs its way through space-time, as Feynman explained.
In order to do an integral, he invented diagrams, known as Feynman diagrams. Now these diagrams are ubiquitous in quantum field theory.

A Feynman Diagram (for Gluon Radiation)

This revolutionary new idea led to a new more powerful formulation of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) the quantum theory of electrons, light and their interaction. This is a jewel in the crown of physics, accurate to ten parts in a billion. As Feynman pointed out, this was like measuring the distance from New York to Los Angeles to the accuracy of the breadth of a single human hair.
As Caltech physicist Leonard Mlodinow notes, only Feynman could come up with such a prescription of following all paths, since he was himself like an electron. Freeman Dyson initially described Feynman as “half genius and half buffoon”, later updating it to “full genius and full buffoon”.

Feynman Playing the Bongos

Feynman also dabbled’ in superfluidity, publishing a series of six classic papers.

Cancer, Challenger Disaster and Death

In 1978, Feynman was diagnosed with cancer. In 1986, he was called to be a panelist in the 12 member panel investigating the Challenger tragedy. His (third) wife had convinced him that

If you don’t do it, there will be 12 people, all in a group, going around from place to place together. But if you join the commission, there will be 11 peopleall in a group, going around from place to place together, while the twelfth one runs around all over the place, checking all kinds of unusual things.

Feynman forsook his self-imposed ban on participating in administrative matters and joined in. His exposure of the O-ring fallacy is now legendary (“Reality must take precedence over public relations; for Nature cannot be fooled”). Watch it here.

Cancer was, however, taking its toll. In 1988, 15th February, after fighting with cancer for a decade, he finally lost. He came out of his coma, said I don’t want to die twice. Dying is boring. That was the last of his discoveries.

But he lives on…

Take a step back and think: It wasn’t about the Nobel Prize (1965, Physics); Feynman is a physicist’s physicist.

Apple came out with this ad in 1998 as part of its 'Think Different' ad campaign

His contributions stretch from QED, to particle physics, to superfluidity and to even QCD (the physics of quarks). He was the most fun-filled character you’d ever encounter. He was a fabulous teacher; the three volumes of Feynman’s Lectures on Physics’ are classics. His lectures on QED, compiled in a book named QED: The Strange theory of light and matter’ can be enjoyed by anyone, with or without a physics major. Feynman was a larger than life figure, a giant in the physics community and a legend outside it. He was as popular and as beloved as scientists can possibly get. He was Elvis with the wonder of the voice transferred to the brain. Maybe, Feynman was greater.

The Feynman Van - It's covered with Feynman Diagrams. (Courtesy: Caltech's Feynman Archive)

Reading Recommendation:

The author strongly urges the reader to go through a few books on Feynman in order to get to know him better. Here are a few suggestions:

1. Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman – Stories of Feynman

2. What do you care what other people think? – Stories of Feynman (sequel to above, has a lot of stuff on the Challenger investigation)

3. QED: The strange theory of Light and Matter -Feynman’s lectures on QED

4. “There’s plenty of room at the bottom” – Feynman’s lecture on nanotechnology (extremely imaginative and surprisingly prophetic)

5. Genius by James Gleick

6. Some Time with Feynman – by Leonard Mlodinow

The Scientific Method: What It Actually Is

What is a scientific model?

Here’s the central point: Science is a model of reality, not reality itself. It tries to approximate reality as closely as possible. For example, in the kinetic theory of gases, the molecules are considered as rigid spheres. However, it is not correct to say that the molecules are hard spheres. They are modeled as hard spheres and the theory works wonderfully well. Of course, it doesn’t exactly match experimental results, and we should not expect that either.

Another important point: Experiments are supreme.

If it disagrees with experiment, it’s wrong.

– Richard Feynman, late theoretical physicist at Caltech

How true. Nothing else matters. If theory predicts a rise in temperature and the experiment shows a decrease, the theory is wrong. Feynman also makes the brilliant point that we can never know that we are right. We can only know that we are wrong. Say we have a theory. We test it in a case in which it applies. If   the result agrees with prediction, can we say that the theory correct? NO! Just that it isn’t proved wrong. There could be an experiment conducted in the future which may produce a result that will contradict the theory. Till then, as long as experiments keep on verifying the theory, it will be proved less and less wrong. But it cannot be proved absolutely correct.

Albert Einstein Cartoon
Think! It helps.

From hypothesis to theory:

  • Make a guess

A theory starts off as a hypothesis a good guess. The guess needs to be checked for simple cases first and then for more intricate ones. The hypothesis needs to produce numbers which can be checked against actual experiments that can be conducted, i.e. it needs to be falsifiable.

  • Falsifiability: What can I do to prove it wrong?

Falsifiability is a vital criterion of a hypothesis to be even taken seriously. (The first thing to ask: How can I prove this wrong? If there is no answer, forget about the hypothesis! It’s Not Even Wrong‘ is the worst insult!)

  • Can it explain the known? Finding faults is not enough.

Next, we need to see how general the hypothesis is. Can it explain all of the results that are explained by the existing theory? We have to find where they clash, and find out which one prevails at that point. Does the hypothesis say something more than what the old theory says? Does it cover for the limitations of the old theory? The important point here is that it is not merely enough to show that the old theory lacks explanation for a certain phenomenon, but the new hypothesis should be able to be successful at explaining all that the old theory can explain. (Thus, creationism is NOT a theory, not even a valid hypothesis!)

  • Peer review, peer review, peer review.

THE most essential step for a hypothesis to become a theory is peer review. It needs to be published in a science journal. A hypothesis is rarely completely correct, but the good parts are generally noticed by readers.

It’s redundant to say that not every accepted theory is a revolution. You never know if a theory will be a revolutionary one. Don’t do science aiming for that! You’ll be disappointed.

Richard Feynman-Key to Science on youtube