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Vol.32 No.2 May 1998

Feynmann Diagrams and Spreading Illusions

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research Institute, Inc.

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"Schwinger's quantum electrodynamics and Feynmann's may have been mathematically the same, but one was conservative and the other revolutionary. One extended an existing line of thought. The other broke with the past decisively enough to mystify its intended audience. One represented an ending: a mathematical style doomed to be fatally overcomplex. The other, for those willing to follow Feynmann into a new style of visualization, served as a beginning. Feynmann's style was risky, even megalomaniacal." [1]

Those of us who have been following the slow growth and spread of information visualization may become complacent, assuming that its value is obvious to all. We may be unaware or forget how rare and revolutionary visualization has been (at least in relatively recent times) -- and how it has often been used by the most creative and innovative mavericks, those who have had to depart from both conventional concepts and conventional methods.

As we move forward with these technologies and techniques into new fields and the wider workplace, we are likely to enter areas where many of the established practitioners do not take naturally to visualization. In this early phase of development, we need to be reminded of the recurring pattern of resistance -- as well as the remarkable power of this new approach.

James Gleick's book about Richard Feynmann, Genius, provides several delightful and illuminating portraits. In the passage above, we have a classic illustration of the battle between two very different ways of thinking about a problem -- ways which converge from different directions (more or less). Julian Schwinger and other physicists were trying to extend the conventional mathematical approaches -- extending the known concepts and techniques just a little bit further. They wanted an incremental improvement. On the other hand, Feynmann, not unlike the stereotypical "visionary," wanted a great deal more. He " 'was searching for general principles that would be flexible enough so that he could adapt them to anything in the universe.' " [2]

Polar Opposites

Time and time again, Feynmann provides us with wonderful examples of the working and thinking style of the strong visual thinker -- and how different this is from that of colleagues and competitors who follow the more conventional verbal, logical and mathematical approaches -- approaches which have dominated physics and many other fields in recent times. Such stories can provide us with insights that will likely extend in many directions.

Where others used mainly mathematics, Feynmann (like Albert Einstein, James Clerk Maxwell and Michael Faraday) relied heavily on diagrams, pictures and mental models. Indeed, Feynmann once told an associate that "Einstein's great work had sprung from physical intuition and that when Einstein stopped creating it was because 'he stopped thinking in concrete physical images and became a manipulator of equations.' " [3]

Just as Feynmann's style of thinking was in deep contrast to Julian Schwinger, so too it was in most respects entirely different from another important physicist, Murray Gell-Mann. As Gleick observes, "In so many ways these two scientific icons had come to seem like polar opposites. . . . Gell-Mann loved to know thing's names and to pronounce them correctly. . . . Feynmann . . . despised nomenclature of all kinds. Gell-Mann was an enthusiastic bird watcher; . . . Feynmann's [belief] was that the name of a bird did not matter. . . ." [4]. Repeatedly, we see Feynmann making the point that simply naming a thing does not demonstrate that you really understand it in any meaningful way -- a fundamental idea that is in opposition to basic education and testing at all levels, often especially in the sciences. (He was furious that his own young children were being taught not real science, as he saw it, but "mere definitions.") [5]

Gleick cites comparisons of the visual Feynmann and the verbal Gell-Mann at some length. "Physicists kept finding new ways to describe the contrast between them. Murray makes sure you know what an extraordinary person he is, they would say, while Dick is not a person at all but a more advanced life form pretending to be human to spare your feelings." [6] Murray was interested in many things but was "openly contemptuous" of branches of science outside high-energy physics. "Dick considered all science to be his territory -- his responsibility -- but remained brashly ignorant of everything else." [7]

Their use of the body is important. "Feynmann talked with his hands -- with his whole body, in fact -- whereas Gell-Mann, as [one] physicist and science writer . . . observed, 'sits calmly behind his desk . . . hands folded, never lifting them to make a gesture. . . . Information is exchanged by words and numbers, not by hands or pictures.' " [8]

" 'Their personal styles spill over into their theoretical work, too. Gell-Mann insists on mathematical rigor in all his work, often at the expense of comprehensibility. . . . Where Gell-Mann disdains vague, heuristic models that might only point the way toward a true solution, Feynmann revels in them. He believes that a certain amount of imprecision and ambiguity is essential to communication.' " [9]

With all their differences, however, each man is passionate in the honesty and directness with which they approach their subject. "Gell-Mann was no more likely than Feynmann to hide behind formalism or to use mathematics as a stand-in for physical understanding." [10]

Yet both men projected masks to the world which became important parts of their personal realities. " 'Murray's mask was a man of great culture. . . . Dick's mask was Mr. Natural -- just a little boy from the country that could see through things the city slickers can't.' " [11]

It is important for us to note that for Feynmann, and others like him, what was needed was not only or entirely visual. It was something just beyond the visual -- as it extends naturally into the physical. These kinds of thinkers needed "a kind of seeing and feeling" grounded in "physical intuition."

(It is noteworthy that Albert Einstein made similar observations; he pointed out that in his own thought processes, part of his "vague play" with "signs and more or less clear images" were "elements" which were "of visual and some of muscular type.") [12]

As Gleick observed, "intuition was not just visual but auditory and kinesthetic. Those who watched Feynmann in moments of intense concentration came away with a strong, even disturbing sense of the physicality of the process, as though his brain did not stop with the grey matter but extended through every muscle in his body. A Cornell dormitory neighbor opened Feynmann's door to find him rolling about on the floor beside his bed as he worked on a problem. When he was not rolling about, he was at least murmuring rhythmically or drumming with his fingers. In part the process of scientific visualization is a process of putting oneself in nature: in an imagined beam of light, in a relativistic electron. . . ." [13]

Feynmann tried to explain how his approach was not entirely or exclusively visual. " 'What I am really trying to do is bring birth to clarity, which is really a half-assedly thought-out pictorial semi-vision thing. I would see the jiggle-jiggle-jiggle or the wiggle of the path. . . .' " [14]

Gleick notes that "in seeking to analyze his own way of visualizing the unvisualizable [Feynmann] had learned an odd lesson. The mathematical symbols he used every day had become entangled with his physical sensations of motion, pressure, acceleration. . . ." [15]

" 'When I start describing the magnetic field moving through space," Feynmann observed, "I speak of . . . fields and wave my arms and you may imagine that I can see them. I'll tell you what I see. I see some kind of vague, shadowy, wiggling lines . . . and perhaps some of the lines have arrows on them -- an arrow here or there which disappears when I look too closely. . . . I have a terrible confusion between the symbols I use to describe the objects and the objects themselves.' " [16]

Spreading Illusions

Anyone who has experienced the CAVE or some other high-quality immersive environment will see immediately the close relevance of Feynmann's descriptions to the kinds of tools we now have at our fingertips. With Feynmann's "wiggling lines" and disappearing arrows, I am reminded of my own immersion in the data of wind currents over Florida at a SIGGRAPH demonstration of the CAVE several years ago. As I looked around, I saw yellow lines with arrows at about my waist height. Crouching down, I then saw all the streaming patterns of wind coursing over my head like a layer of thin yellow clouds.

Such whole-body interaction with very high-quality imagery can have effects far beyond what might have been expected. Of course, as we know, airline pilots emerge perspiring and shaken from their simulated near misses and crashes. And car designers now know never to allow visitors to take coffee cups into their simulators -- because they are so likely to put their cups down on surfaces that are not really there.

Remarkably, in such a display as the CAVE there is a persuasive illusion of concreteness and physicality that we might not expect. Visual material presented in the right way, with the right speeds and at the right resolution may go very far toward activating and mimicking the kinesthetic along with the visual and the auditory.

When these kinds of technologies are really very good, we may find that we rarely have to go so far as to add the complexity of force feed back or other cumbersome devices to generate a useful and persuasive illusion. Indeed, with the right speeds and with real ease of interaction we may move quickly beyond the merely effective and impressive to the frightening. (We must also be aware, however, that beyond certain limits our bodies sometimes do not take well to a confusing partial message -- as with the strange symptoms and brief neurological shutdowns fighter pilots sometimes suffer as a consequence of simulator sickness, as they get all the visual information with only a small fraction of the G forces.)

As these technologies and truly new ways of working and thinking spread throughout the economy, in time we should expect to see increased tension and a widening divide, at least in the short run. Some will take (or have already taken) to these new technologies and techniques like water in the desert. (Finally, they see that the mode of communication relates to the way their own minds really work.)

But for most people, in most disciplines, it is more likely that their attitudes will be more resistant. First, they will say that the new visual technologies and techniques are not really serious or sophisticated. Later, they will say well of course, we all use these things, but the benefits are limited and the applications are restricted.

But, still later, if we are correct in our expectations, they will realize how the deep power of these new methods is transforming their world -- making hostile an area that once was theirs alone. These changes may make their special talents less valued, their traditional approaches less relevant.

Of course, in the end, both sides and both kinds of approaches will always be needed. But it may be some time before we have moved beyond all of this to circle back once again to an awareness and a genuine appreciation for a broad range of approaches and thinking styles.

A New Coming of Age

In the December 1997 issue of Communications of the ACM, guest editor Ramesh Jain noted the possibility of a major turning point. "Many disparate advances in technology," he wrote, "are making visual information in computing as important as it is in regular biological human life. We humans are most adept and comfortable with visual information. . . ." With these advances, "we may again be at turning point in the history of human civilization." [17]

We now know that the brain uses two contrasting strategies to handle information about the world. Each strategy is fundamentally different. Each is quite difficult to translate into the other -- which is not at all surprising given the brain's need to accommodate the requirements of such different modes of operation. It is apparent that both strategies are needed in the long run.

For some time, modern human culture has been almost entirely dominated by tools and technologies which support the sequential brain strategy -- linked with words. However, quite suddenly in historical terms a new set of tools has been dumped into our laps.

Thomas G.West is author of In the Mind's Eye. He has recently been asked to join the Board of the newly reestablished Washington, D.C., area chapter of SIGGRAPH and is currently conducting research for a new book with the working title: Insight--Computer Information Visualization and the Visual Thinkers Who are Reshaping the Future of Technology and Business.

Thomas G.West
Visualization Research
National Dyslexia Research Foundation

Tel: +1-301-654-5828
Fax: +1-301-654-0987

The copyright of articles and images printed remains with the author unless otherwise indicated.

We should expect that moving from the one strategy to the other will have powerful consequences. Without being fully aware of the deep importance of what we are doing, we are now learning to use the tools and technologies which support the simultaneous strategy of the human brain -- linked to images.

Very possibly, this could be the most important change in the foundation of human culture for something like 2000 years. And we are now only at the very beginning. As we proceed along the way, however, we should expect the pace and direction to be set by strong visual thinkers who will often ignore conventional verbal descriptions -- instead, putting themselves into their own mental models, talking with their hands, rolling on the floor, taking risks.


  1. Gleick, James. Genius--The Life and Science of Richard Feynmann, New York, Pantheon Books, 1992, p. 321
  2. Freeman Dyson, quoted in Gleick, p. 321.
  3. Gleick, p. 244.
  4. Gleick, pp. 387, 388.
  5. Gleick, p. 398.
  6. Gleick, p. 388.
  7. Gleick, p. 388.
  8. Michael Riordan, quoted in Gleick, p. 388.
  9. Riordan, quoted in Gleick, pp. 388-389.
  10. Gleick, p. 389.
  11. Sidney Coleman, quoted in Gleick, p. 389.
  12. Quoted in West, Thomas G. In the Mind's Eye--Visual Thinkers, Gifted People with Dyslexia and Other Learning Difficulties, Computer Images and the Ironies of Creativity, Amherst, New York, Prometheus Books, 1997, p. 26.
  13. Gleick, p. 244.
  14. Feynmann, quoted in Gleick, p. 244.
  15. Gleick, p. 245.
  16. Feynmann, quoted in Gleick, p. 245.
  17. Jain, Ramesh. "Visual Information Management," Communications of the ACM, vol. 40, no. 12, December 1997, p. 31.