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EDITOR'S FOREWORD
Editor's Foreword
Since it is now some eight years since Feynman died I feel it necessary to explain the genesis of these 'Feynman Lectures on Computation'. In November 1987 I received a call from Helen Tuck, Feynman's secretary of many years, saying that Feynman wanted me to write up his lecture notes on computation for publication. Sixteen years earlier, as a post-doc at CalTech I had declined the opportunity to edit his 'Parton' lectures on the grounds that it would be a distraction from my research. I had often regretted this decision so I did not take much persuading to give it a try this time around. At CalTech that first time, I was a particle physicist, but ten years later, on a sabbatical visit to CalTech in 1981, I became interested in computational physics problems — playing with variational approaches that (I later found out) were similar to techniques Feynman had used many years before. The stimulus of a CalTech colloquium on "The Future of VLSI' by Carver Mead then began my move towards parallel computing and computer science.
Feynman had an interest in computing for many years, dating back to the Manhattan project and the modeling of the plutonium implosion bomb. In 'Los Alamos from Below', published in 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!', Feynman recounts how he was put in charge of the 'IBM group' to calculate the energy release during implosion. Even in those days before the advent of the digital computer, Feynman and his team worked out ways to do bomb calculations in parallel. The official record at CalTech lists Feynman as joining with John Hopfield and Carver Mead in 1981 to give an interdisciplinary course entitled "The Physics of Computation'. The course was given for two years and John Hopfield remembers that all three of them never managed to give the course together in the same year: one year Feynman was ill, and the second year Mead was on leave. A handout from the course of 1982/3 reveals the flavor of the course: a basic primer on computation, computability and information theory followed by a section entitled 'Limits on computation arising in the physical world and "fundamental" limits on computation'. The lectures that year were given by Feynman and Hopfield with guest lectures from experts such as Marvin Minsky, John Cocke and Charles Bennett. In the spring of 1983, through his connection with MIT and his son Carl, Feynman worked as a consultant for Danny Hillis at Thinking Machines, an ambitious, new parallel computer company.
In the fall of 1983, Feynman first gave a course on computing by himself, listed in the CalTech record as being called 'Potentialities and Limitations of
Computing Machines'. In the years 1984/85 and 1985/86, the lectures were taped and it is from these tapes and Feynman's notebooks that these lecture notes have been reconstructed. In reply to Helen Tuck, I told her I was visiting CalTech in January of 1988 to talk at the 'Hypercube Conference'. This was a parallel computing conference that originated from the pioneering work at CalTech by Geoffrey Fox and Chuck Seitz on their 'Cosmic Cube' parallel computer. I talked with Feynman in January and he was very keen that his lectures on computation should see the light of day. I agreed to take on the project and returned to Southampton with an agreement to keep in touch. Alas, Feynman died not long after this meeting and we had no chance for a more detailed dialogue about the proposed content of his published lectures.
Helen Tuck had forwarded to me both a copy of the tapes and a copy of Feynman's notes for the course. It proved to be a lot of work to put his lectures in a form suitable for publication. Like the earlier course with Hopfield and Mead, there were several guest lecturers giving one or more lectures on topics ranging from the programming language 'Scheme' to physics applications on the 'Cosmic Cube'. I also discovered that several people had attempted the task before me! However, the basic core of Feynman's contribution to the course rapidly became clear — an introductory section on computers, followed by five sections exploring the limitations of computers arising from the structure of logic gates, from mathematical logic, from the unreliability of their components, from the thermodynamics of computing and from the physics of semiconductor technology. In a sixth section, Feynman discussed the limitations of computers due to quantum mechanics. His analysis of quantum mechanical computers was presented at a meeting in Anaheim in June of 1984 and subsequently published in the journal 'Optics News' in February 1985. These sections were followed by lectures by invited speakers on a wide range of 'advanced applications' of computers — robotics, AI, vision, parallel architectures and many other topics which varied from year to year.
As advertised, Feynman's lecture course set out to explore the limitations and potentialities of computers. Although the lectures were given some ten years ago, much of the material is relatively 'timeless' and represents a Feynmanesque overview of some standard topics in computer science. Taken as a whole, however, the course is unusual and genuinely interdisciplinary. Besides giving the 'Feynman treatment' to subjects such as computability, Turing machines (or as Feynman says, 'Mr. Turing's machines'), Shannon's theorem and information theory, Feynman also discusses reversible computation, thermodynamics and quantum computation. Such a wide-ranging discussion of the fundamental basis of computers is undoubtedly unique and a 'sideways', Feynman-type view of the |