Feynman on imagining electromagnetic waves

Richard Feynman on imagining electromagnetic waves:

I’ll tell you what I see. I see some kind of vague showy, wiggling lines  — here and there an E and a B written on them somehow, and perhaps some of the lines have arrows on them — an arrow here or there which disappears when I look too closely at it. When I talk about the fields swishing through space, I have a terrible confusion between the symbols I use to describe the objects and the objects themselves. I cannot really make a picture that is even nearly like the true waves. So if you have difficulty making such a picture, you should not be worried that your difficulty is unusual.

From The Feynman Lectures on Physics, volume II.

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7 thoughts on “Feynman on imagining electromagnetic waves

  1. Wow, I’d never seen this Feynman quote before. It made me wonder whether he may have had synaesthesia… and whadda ya know, he did:

    His quote in the Lancet describes a fairly common type of synaesthesia. The quote you posted above sounds quite different, but still plausibly synaesthesia: “I have a terrible confusion between the symbols I use to describe the objects and the objects themselves”…

    I wonder whether many of the semi-mystical geniuses of math & physics lore (also, for example, Ramanujan) have had similar neurological conditions that give them an unusually intuitive view of their fields of study.

  2. I think we’re really missing Feynman’s point here if we’re thinking this has something special to do with synaethesia or any other neurological/psychological condition. I know I lean on pictures when I do physics, and I often imagine electromagnetic fields using field lines when I’m working out a problem. Feynman is reminding us that these intuitive visualizations are not really pictures of the things themselves: we can’t imagine what an electromagnetic field looks like, if that even means anything.

  3. I’m with Timmo on this one. The point here is that a great understanding of electromagnetism does not involve a great visualization, but an understanding of the mathematics and the mathematical relationships. You reach a point where the time-varying 3D visualization of what you are trying to think about is no longer manageable and you have to work exclusively with the symbolic representations that define the relationships between the elements.

  4. Perhaps you’re right and I misread the quote. I thought he meant he has a clear “image” (in some sense) in his head of the electromagnetic field, and the connection between the field and his symbols seems obvious to him, but he can’t always make it obvious to other people.
    But on re-reading, maybe he meant the opposite — the field is hard to imagine, the symbols can be easier to work with, and it’s hard to keep track of where the symbols break down as a metaphor for reality.

    Still, I get the impression that he had a good intuition about these matters, such that it was easier for him than for the rest of us to move back and forth between the symbolic representation and the thing itself, and perhaps the visualization was not so unmanageable (even if hard to describe to others).

  5. I think that Jerzy’s has point, at least to an extent. Feynment invented new representations for certain types of quantum interactions. Given this, his experimentation with LSD and other mind altering drugs, love of the bonjo, etc, all point to a synesthetic tendencies.

  6. The confusion of a symbol (i.e. a bit of language) and what it refers to (i.e. something real and non-linguistic) gives rise to many familiar philosophical problems and errors. (For example, think about “reduction” in science — are we talking about reduction of one theory to another theory, or reduction of an object to its parts? How do we interpret “collapse of the wave function”? Etc.)

    Feynman was a “natural” philosopher who had the intelligence and self-knowledge to warn himself against this near-universal weakness.

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