Skip to main content

Drawing Theories Apart

The Dispersion of Feynman Diagrams in Postwar Physics

Winner of the 2007 Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society.
Feynman diagrams have revolutionized nearly every aspect of theoretical physics since the middle of the twentieth century. Introduced by the American physicist Richard Feynman (1918-88) soon after World War II as a means of simplifying lengthy calculations in quantum electrodynamics, they soon gained adherents in many branches of the discipline. Yet as new physicists adopted the tiny line drawings, they also adapted the diagrams and introduced their own interpretations. Drawing Theories Apart traces how generations of young theorists learned to frame their research in terms of the diagrams—and how both the diagrams and their users were molded in the process.

Drawing on rich archival materials, interviews, and more than five hundred scientific articles from the period, Drawing Theories Apart uses the Feynman diagrams as a means to explore the development of American postwar physics. By focusing on the ways young physicists learned new calculational skills, David Kaiser frames his story around the crafting and stabilizing of the basic tools in the physicist’s kit—thus offering the first book to follow the diagrams once they left Feynman’s hands and entered the physics vernacular.

376 pages | 15 halftones, 73 line drawings, 2 tables | 6 x 9 | © 2005

History of Science

Physical Sciences: History and Philosophy of Physical Sciences


"A colorful and readable account of the earliest applications of the diagrammatic technique."

Eugen Merzbacher | Physics Today

"This is a rich and original contribution to the expanding historical scholarship on the development of scientific tools and practices. Kaiser is one of the few historians to deal with the conceptual equipment of science as a kind of malleable paper tool, showing how Feynman diagrams were refracted through local environments and ultimately transformed. In all, a dazzling piece of work."-Daniel J. Kevles, Yale University

Daniel J. Kevles, Yale University

“Only a few people have the talent to write the history of theoretical physics. Only one or two can conceptualize and explain the elaboration of theory as a practical activity, which, like fine art, has its own competing traditions and conventions of representation.  David Kaiser accomplishes all this and backs it up with a level of detailed scholarship that makes it totally convincing.”

Harry Collins, Cardiff University

“This book is a double delight. It is the best example so far of a new way of doing the history of science, not as an account of evolving theories, experiments, and instruments, but of diagrams. It is a story of how a generation of physicists came to think for themselves and to talk to others in a new way. It takes you inside their minds and their seminars. It is also a wonderful way to learn how Feynman diagrams work and what they mean—in effect, a super do-it-yourself manual.”

Ian Hacking, Collège de France, Paris

"This is surely the definitive study of one of the great ubiquitous tools of modern quantum field theory."

A. I. Solomon | Contemporary Physics

“Intellectual tools can have profound impacts. Feynman diagrams have greatly improved how theoretical physicists think and, consequently, our understanding of nature. Drawing Theories Apart provides an informative description of how their influence came about.”

Gordon Kane | Science

"This is a fascinating book., if you are interested in the history, sociology and people of physics. It should be in every physics library."

Bruce H.J. McKellar | Australian Physics

"Kaiser is prodigiously talented in telling the adventure of modern theoretical physics: the richness of the book may impress even the most demanding historians and physicists. Physicists will probably be surprised to learn of so many varieties of Feynman diagrams. Historians will be delighted with the originality of the approach. . . . Everybody will be enchanted by the style of the book: even when (very) difficult physics is presented, it is never boring; it is always luminous and exciting."

Anouk Barberousse | International Studies in the Philsophy of Science

"A colorful and readable account of the earliest applications of the diagrammatic technique. . . . The book comes equipped with a formidable ancillary apparatus of footnotes and appendices and a massive bibliography that alone is worth the price."

Eugen Merzbacher | Physics

"A rich, original and most recommendable contribution to the history of modern science. It skilfully integrates social history with conceptual history, a technical mastery of Feynman diagrams with a broad and novel perspective of the historicity of the diagrams. . . . Drawing Theories Apart will surely be studied by historians, sociologists and philosophers of physics. . . . It has much to offer also to readers with no background in physics."

British Journal of the History of Science

"A stimulating and readable book that is also accessible to a wider audience. . . . The book is a valuable contribution to the history and philosophy of physics."

Adrian Wuethrich | Studies in History and Philosophy of Modern Physics

"Kaiserer’s masterly written book provides a readable account of the role of Feynman’s intuitive tools for today’s physics."

Gert Roepstorff | Zentralblatt Math

Table of Contents

Preface and Acknowledgments


Chapter 1. Introduction: Pedagogy and the Institutions of Theory

Richard Feynman and His Diagrams

Paper Tools and the Practice of Theory

Pedagogy and Postwar Physics

Overview: The Two Meanings of "Dispersion"


Chapter 2. An Introduction in the Poconos

Quantum Electrodynamics and the Problem of Infinities

Initial Reception and Lingering Confusion

Evidence of Dispersion

Chapter 3. Freeman Dyson and the Postdoc Cascade

The Rise of Postdoctoral Training

Dyson as Diagrammatic Ambassador

Life and Physics at the Institute for Advanced Study

The Postdoc Cascade

A Pedagogical Field Theory

Chapter 4. International Dispersion

The Diagrams’ Diaspora

Feynman Diagrams in Great Britain

Feynman Diagrams in Japan

Feynman Diagrams in the Soviet Union

Tacit and Explicit Knowledges


Chapter 5. Seeds of Dispersion

The Feynman-Dyson Split

Perturbative Methods Fail, Feynman Diagrams Flourish

Chapter 6. Family Resemblances

Kroll’s Perturbative Bookkeepers

Marshak’s Meson Markers

Climbing Bethe’s Ladder: Feynman Diagrams and the Many-Body Problem

Training Theorists for House and Field


Chapter 7. Teaching the Diagrams in an Age of Textbooks

The Postwar Age of Textbooks

The New Diagrammatic Textbooks

Pedagogy and the Pictures’ Place

Chapter 8. Doodling toward a New "Theory"

Dispersion Relations

Crossing to a New Representation

From Bookkeepers to Pole Finders: Polology and the Landau Rules

Chew the Program Builder: Nuclear Democracy and the Bootstrap

Diagrammatic Bootstrapping and the Emergence of New Theories

Chapter 9. "Democratic" Diagrams in Berkeley and Princeton

Geoffrey Chew: A Scientist’s Politics of Democracy in 1950s America

Pedagogical Reforms: "Secret Seminars" and "Wild Merrymaking"

The View from Princeton

Conditions of Diagrammatic Possibilities

Chapter 10. Paper Tools and the Theorists’ Way of Life

Why Did the Diagrams Stick? Inculcation and Reification

In Search of the Vanishing Scientific Theory

Appendix A. Feynman Diagrams in the Physical Review, 1949-54

Appendix B. Feynman Diagrams in Proceedings of the Royal Society, 1950-54

Appendix C. Feynman Diagrams in Progress of Theoretical Physics, 1949-54

Appendix D. Feynman Diagrams in Soryushi-ron Kenkyu, 1949-52

Appendix E. Feynman Diagrams in Zhurnal eksperimental’noi i teoreticheskoi fiziki, 1952-59

Appendix F. Feynman Diagrams in Other Journals, 1950-54




Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press