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USciences Professor Paul Halpern Launches New Book

By Jenna Pizzi

The Quantum LabyrinthPhysics Professor Paul Halpern, PhD, is launching his newest book highlighting the friendship and productive collaboration of two acknowledged giants of twentieth-century physics: Richard Feynman and John Wheeler.

The book, “The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality,” published by Basic Books, is the first to draw on the extensive archive of John Wheeler and includes excerpts from his letters and notebooks. The story also features interviews with Feynman and Wheeler’s friends, former colleagues, and family members.

Dr. Halpern said he grew interested in their impact on one another after learning of the depth of their relationship while advising on stage direction for a play about Feynman’s life. During a question and answer session after the show, he met Wheeler’s son who shared stories of Feynman’s close relationship with Wheeler and his family including one time where he came over to the house to perform a physics experiment with cans of soup.

“I was intrigued by their relationship and there hadn’t been a biography about Wheeler, so I saw an opportunity to highlight the unique relationship between this unlikely pair,” Dr. Halpern said.

Halpern said writing the book helped him to focus on the importance of the student-teacher relationship.

“It helped me to understand how important it is to connect with students. I really appreciate my students at USciences,” said Dr. Halpern. “Both Feynman and Wheeler were really proud of their connections with students and how they learned from them, and so am I.”

In the fall of 1939, Feynman, a brilliant graduate of MIT, arrived in Wheeler's Princeton University office to report for duty as his teaching assistant. A lifelong friendship and enormously productive collaboration was born.

The soft-spoken Wheeler, though conservative in appearance, was a raging nonconformist full of wild ideas about the universe. The boisterous Feynman was a cautious physicist who believed only what could be tested. Yet they were complementary spirits. As Halpern writes, “Bizarre notions flowed from both their creative minds…Arguably, much of the visionary work in theoretical physics in the late-twentieth and twenty-first centuries derives from their bold discourse.” 

Through their work together, the two physicists completely rethought the foundations of our world. Feynman’s groundbreaking concept of sum over histories, named and endorsed by Wheeler, did away with the idea of particles following linear paths in favor of a dazzling labyrinthine model. Encouraged by Wheeler, he was able to show how quantum reality is a combination of alternative, contradictory possibilities. Meanwhile, Wheeler was inspired by Feynman to develop his theory of wormholes, portals to the future and past. The two pioneered the use of doodles and diagrams to explain quantum interactions, giving birth to the now-essential Feynman diagrams that show possible backward- and forward-in-time paths for particles. And these are only a few examples of the fruits of their lifelong alliance.

Throughout his life, Wheeler’s more bizarre speculations about the nature of the universe would be met with skepticism, but, as Feynman said of him, “His ideas are strange…But it is surprising how often we realize later that he was right.”

Together, the two made sure that quantum physics would never be the same again.

Categories: News, Faculty, Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Mathematics Physics and Statistics, Physics, Book