The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman

By Richard P. Feynman; Jeffrey Robbins | Go to book overview

Editor's Introduction

Recently I was present at a lecture at Harvard University's venerable Jefferson Lab. The speaker was Dr. Lene Hau of the Rowland Institute, who had just conducted an experiment that was reported not only in the distinguished scientific journal Nature but also on the front page of the New York Times. In the experiment, she (with her research group of students and scientists) passed a laser beam through a new kind of matter called a Bose-Einstein condensate (a weird quantum state in which a bunch of atoms, cooled almost to absolute zero, practically stop moving at all and together act like a single particle), which slowed that light beam to the unbelievably leisurely pace of 38 miles per hour. Now light, which normally travels at the breakneck pace of 186,000 miles per second, or 669,600,000 miles per hour, in a vacuum, does typically slow down whenever it passes through any medium, such as air or glass, but only by a fraction of a percent of its speed in vacuo. But do the arithmetic and you will see that 38 miles per hour divided by 669.6 million miles per hour equals 0.00000006, or six-millionths of a percent, of its speed in vacuo. To put this result in perspective, it is as if Galileo had dropped his cannonballs from the Tower of Pisa and they took two years to reach the ground.

I was left breathless by the lecture (even Einstein would have been impressed, I think). For the first time in my life I felt a smidgen of what Richard Feynman called "the kick in

-xiii-

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