Chess and the laws of physics

4/16/2006 – Two years ago we told you about a book in which Richard Feynman, the Nobel Prize winning physicist, used the rules of chess to illustrate the laws of physics. Feynman was famous for his ability to explain complex subjects to a lay audience in a sparkling, entertaining fashion. Now we have found a video of his chess analogy lecture.

Richard Phillips Feynman, 1918 – 1988, was one of the greatest American physicists, one of the key members of the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb. He expanded the theory of quantum electrodynamics, quark theory, and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium. He received the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for his work on quantum electrodynamics, but his colleagues consider his discovery of superfluidity and the prediction of quarks to be even greater achievements. Feynman is also credited with the concept of quantum computing, and was the first scientist to envision nanotechnology, i.e. the ability to mass produce atomic-scale machines.

After the war Feynman worked at the California Institute of Technology at Pasadena, California, specifically because it offered him a chance to teach physics, which he found to be a source of inspiration. He was known as the "Great Explainer" and took care to explain subjects in a way that non-experts could understand (he believed that if a topic could not be explained in a freshman lecture, it was not fully understood yet). He was known for his curiosity, wit, as well as a brilliant and playful temperament, which always held the fascination of his audiences.

The chess analogy

Richard Feynman once noted that discovering the laws of physics is like trying to learn the laws of chess merely by observing chess games. You notice that bishops stay on the same color squares; you write this down as a law of chess. Later, you come up with a better law – bishops move diagonally. And, since diagonal squares are always colored the same, this explains why bishops always stay on the same color. This law is an improvement – it is simpler, and yet explains more. In physics, discovering Einstein's theory of gravity after knowing Newton's theory of gravity is a similar type of discovery. As another example, noticing that pieces don't change their identity in a chess game is similar to discovering the law of mass-and-energy conservation.

Eventually, say, you see a chess game in which a pawn reaches the other end of the board and is promoted. You say, "Wait, that violates the laws of chess. Pieces can't just change their identity." Of course, it does not violate the laws of chess; you just had never seen a game pushed to that extreme before.

Now we have found a video sequence from 1981 BBC interview in which Feynman repeats the chess anology. You will need Quicktime 7 to watch it. If this is not already installed on your computer you can get it here. The installation is quick, painless and has no negative effects we were able to detect.

We found the above, together with a number of further highly recommendable Feynman video sequences, at the One Good Move web site, which is a very entertaining site with topical snippets from all areas of society and entertainment. Interestingly it uses the Through the Looking Glass woodcutting with the chessboard field for their page header. Careful, the site is addictive...

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