Richard Feynman and computation
The enormous contribution of Richard Feynman to modern physics is well known, both toteaching through his famous
Feynman Lectures on Physics
, and to research with his
approach to quantum ®eld theory and his
formulation of quantum mechanics. Less well known perhaps is his long-standing interest in the physics of computation and this is the subject of this paper. Feynman lectured on computation atCaltech for most of the last decade of his life, ®rst with John Hop®eld and Carver Mead,and then with Gerry Sussman. The story of how these lectures came to be written up as the
Feynman Lectures on Computation
is brie¯y recounted. Feynman also discussed the fundamentals of computation with other legendary ®gures of the computer science and physics community such as Ed Fredkin, Rolf Landauer, Carver Mead, Marvin Minsky and John Wheeler. He was also instrumental in stimulating developments in both nanotechnol-ogy and quantum computing. During the 1980s Feynman re-visited long-standing interestsboth in parallel computing with GeoŒrey Fox and Danny Hillis, and in reversiblecomputation and quantum computing with Charles Bennett, Norman Margolus, Tom ToŒoli and Wojciech Zurek. This paper records Feynman’s links with the computational communityand includes some reminiscences about his involvement with the fundamentals of computing.
Feynman Lectures on Computation
 were ®nallypublished in September 1996, some eight years after hisdeath. How did an English Professor of Computer SciencecometobeeditingFeynman’slecturesgiven at Caltechwhichhedidnotevenattend?InNovember1987, Ireceiveda phonecall in Southamptonfrom Helen Tuck, Feynman’s secretaryfor many years, saying that Feynman wanted me to helpwrite up his lecture notes on computation. Sixteen yearsearlier, as a post-doc at Caltech, I had declined theopportunity to work with Finn Ravndal on editingFeynman’s `Parton’lectures  on the groundsthat it wouldbe a distraction from my research. I had often regretted mydecisionso I did nottake muchpersuading thistimearound.At Caltechin theearly 1970s, I had beena theoreticalparticlephysicist,but ten years later, on a sabbatical visit to Caltechin 1981, I becameinterested in computationalphysicsÐplay-ing with Monte Carlo and variational methods that I laterfound out were similar to techniques Feynman had usedyears beforeatLosAlamos.WhileI wastherein 1981,CarverMead gave a memorable lecture about the future of VLSIÐVery Large Scale IntegrationÐand the semiconduc-tor industry.I returnedto Southampton inspiredby Mead’svision of the future and set about exploring the potential of parallel computing for computational science. Four yearslater, I completed my move from physics to computerscience,when I moved to the Departmentof Electronics andComputer Science at Southampton. Two years after that, Ireceived the call from Helen Tuck.The ocial record at Caltech  lists Feynman as joiningwith John Hop®eld and Carver Mead in the fall of 1981 togive an interdisciplinary course entitled `The Physics of Computation’. The coursewas given for two years althoughFeynman was ill with cancer during the ®rst year and Meadon sabbatical for much of the second. A handout from thecourse of 1982
83 reveals the ¯avor of the course: a basicprimer on computation, computability and informationtheory followed by a section titled `Limits on computationarising in the physical world and `fundamental’ limits oncomputation.’ The lectures that year were mainly given byFeynman and Hop®eld with guestlecturesfrom expertssuchas Marvin Minsky, Charles Bennett and John Cocke.
Department of Electronics and Computer Science,University of Southampton, Southampton SO17 1BJ, UK.
1999, volume 40, number 4, pages 257±265
ISSN 0010-7514 print
ISSN 1366-5812 online
1999 Taylor & Francis Ltdhttp: