“The Same Damn Thing Over and Over”: Richard Feynman on the Similarities of Physical Theories

It’s always a pleasure to be illuminated by the mind of the great physicist, Richard Feynman, Nobel laureate, co-developer of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED), inventor of the Feynman Diagram widely used in theoretical physics, and Bongo drum player. In the excerpts below Feynman ruminates on the apparent similarities in the structure of physical theories.

Photo from Quantamth.

Why are the theories of physics so similar in their structure? There are a number of possibilities.

The first is the limited imagination of physicists: when we see a new phenomenon, we try to fit it into the framework we already have – until we have made enough experiments, we don’t know that it doesn’t work. So when some fool physicist gives a lecture at UCLA in 1983 and says, “This is the way it works, and look how wonderfully similar the theories are,” it’s not because Nature is really similar; it’s because the physicists have only been able to think of the same damn thing, over and over again.

Another possibility is that it is the same damn thing over and over again – that Nature has only one way of doing things, and She repeats her story from time to time.

A third possibility is that things look similar thing – some larger picture underneath, from which things can be broken into parts that look different, like fingers on the same hand. Many physicists are working very hard trying to put together a grand picture that unifies everything into one super-duper model. It’s a delightful game, but at present time none of the speculators agree with any of the other speculators as to what the grand picture is.”

~ From Richard Feynman, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (1985).

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