Thursday, May 14, 2009

Tales from Abroad, Pasadena Edition - Part 3: Archive Life

On May 11, 1918 Richard Phillips Feynman was born. Hundreds of physics papers, textbooks and talks, dozens of years of fruitful, active research, three wives, and one Nobel prize later, lay in a hospital bed, his body ridden with cancer. Waking up from his coma he opened his eyes one last time and muttered "This dying is boring." Not much longer the boredom ceased.

That was 1988.

On May 11 2009 Ari Gross, aspiring historian and philosopher of science plunged into Richard Feynman's personal archives at Caltech. Undaunted by the imposing volume of calculations, letters, and course notes, our intrepid researcher was determined to seek out every last diagram drawn, uncover their historical origins, and be able to say something interesting about visualization in scientific reasoning. Five years later he was hired with immediate tenure for his brilliant ideas that changed the way everyone, including his brilliant supermodel girlfriend, thinks about science.

OK, so I made the last part up.

For all its potential gains, archival work is wonderfully unglamorous. I got lost the first morning finding the archives - apparently they're not in the basement but in the sub-basement - no possibility of the sun coming anywhere close you. Just to rub it in, you know? Seriously, I find myself wondering why I flew all the way out to California to spend six hours a day sitting in an air-conditioned room two stories below ground when there are palm trees - palm trees! - and a cloudless sky waiting for me outside. Still, I'm not going back empty handed, and come hell, high water, or the quake of the century I'm determined to get all the information I can get my hands on to understand how Feynman came up with his diagrams and about two or three other possible paper topics, just for good measure (or in case someone publishes his thesis on this, which I learned today, may actually be happening as I type - it looks like I'll have to head home with more information than I expected, just in case).

I've gotten in a decent routine. I wake up at 7, slowly haul myself out of bed and stroll down for the all-too-continental breakfast for a bite before walking 20-25 minutes to the Caltech campus. Then I flip through pages and pages, looking for Feynman's doodles or anything that might help me understand them, and then lunch. There's a sandwich place on campus nearby, the Broad. Apparently it's tried a bunch of menus but they all failed - sandwiches it is. I tried their "Coal-miner" sandwich - not bad, if you can get your head around why you would ever combine turkey with pastrami. It's served with a couple slices of orange, a half a pickle and two chillies that will murder your tongue dead. I was seriously unprepared for those chillies, and I normally love spicy food. Ah, the wonders of bordering Mexico...

There's the campus cafeteria as well, which can also be quite nice. For 6-something I picked up a chicken breast with rice and veggies (though you could taste the frozen from the veggies). Today I decided to have a tostita loaded with rice, beans, meatballs with all the fixins. Apparently they charged for that one by the ounce. Be warned: if it's per weight, get lettuce or go home - there's no reason anyone should pay $15 for a couple of tacos.

One o'clock rolls around and it's back to the archives. I rifle through boxes of stuff that only crazy people would even think of looking at for the next three hours. Letters about giving guest lectures in Brazil. Rambling calculations in idiosyncratic notation. Discussions of how to best achieve a finite relativistic Lagrangian path-integral formation of a free (self-interacting) electron, nevermind how to deal with vacuum polarization. You know, your everyday quantum electrodynamics stuff. I scour over pages and pages of notes trying desperately to find a date on something, anything, that could give me a clue of whether or not a particular one-inch-large doodle was written in 1948 or 1949.

(Seriously, scientists of the future, if you ever want your ground-breaking work to be studied after you're dead, please, for the love of nature or god, stick a date at the top of each and every page you ever write anything on. You'll be making things easier for your future hagiographers, I mean, critical-thinking historians.)

And then four o'clock rolls around and I'm out the door, shunted back into bright sunlight shining through the cloudless sky that is Southern California. I stroll back to my hotel, sip the finest bottle of white Californian wine four dollars can buy, watch some TV (I'm halfway through the Wire... damn that show's good) and hit the hay. Or maybe I'll talk to a prof and get told why the best history is technical, line-by-line, equation-reproducing work, or why there's someone who's about to write up what I'm doing and his stuff is actually quite good, well thought out, and about to go to press. Tomorrow I hope to see a couple of philosophers of biology talk about something Darwin-y (this being the 150th anniversary of the Origin of Species, and all).

Excitement all around. Archives, I salute you! Salute me back with my dream-find tomorrow and we'll call it even.

Post Script: I have recently become aware that my girlfriend, who undoubtedly brilliant, does, one day, intend to become a supermodel. Now if only I could get that instant tenure...

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