I must take issue with some of the assertions in Terry Christensen’s review “Entertaining biography lacks rigorous history” (Physics Today, April 2018, page 56) of my book The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality. Contrary to the headline, the history in the book is well documented and based on extensive archival research, examinations of conference proceedings, numerous phone and email interviews with those who knew the two physicists, and so forth.

Christensen asserts that I credit Feynman and Wheeler for other physicists’ accomplishments. Although I point out their considerable achievements, I devote much of the book to describing the work of other thinkers, including Freeman Dyson, Bryce DeWitt and Cécile DeWitt-Morette, Charles Misner, and Kip Thorne.

“Halpern does not offer any supporting evidence,” writes Christensen, for my claim that Wheeler was glad that Feynman was his student. Yet I include direct quotes from Wheeler to that effect—for example, on page 7, “Through some wonderful freak of fate I ended up with him assigned to me.”

“Halpern’s narrative,” says Christensen, “downplays some key aspects of the Feynman–Wheeler story. One is the sheer improbability of their relationship.” However, I wrote, “When admitted to Princeton, Feynman had originally been assigned as Wigner’s teaching assistant. At the last minute, Feynman was switched to assisting Wheeler instead.”

Christensen says that I do not “take stock of the difficulties inherent” in producing a significant paper during wartime. But I do. I emphasize that issue, including on page 92 a key quote from Wheeler in a March 1942 letter he wrote to Feynman: “I would advise you very strongly to write up what you have in these remaining few weeks before you get into the situation in which I now find myself, where there is absolutely no time to work on our theory of action at a distance.”

At another point Christensen says of me, “He … fails to point out Feynman’s aversion to working with graduate students; his celebrated Physics X course was open to undergraduates only.” Yet that depiction is based more on folklore than on fact. Actually, Feynman mentored numerous graduate students—Laurie Brown, Albert Hibbs, and others—but urged them to work independently, a style many other theorists have chosen. Julian Schwinger, for example, spent very little time with his many PhD students. There are many pedagogical reasons why Feynman would dissuade graduate students from taking Physics X, a freshman course for nonmajors; for one thing, their extensive knowledge would intimidate novices.

Christensen states that I gloss over “Wheeler’s reluctance to support either Feynman or Hugh Everett III when his own mentor, Niels Bohr, expressed disapproval of their work.” Perhaps he missed where I had written, on page 147, “Wheeler took careful notes but, as far as history records, did not defend Feynman. Wheeler always treated Bohr, his dear mentor and role model, with the utmost deference and respect,” and on page 192 that Wheeler “met with Bohr and Petersen to try to convince them of the merits of Everett’s hypothesis.”

In short, The Quantum Labyrinth is historically rigorous, extensively researched, and accurate.

Editor’s note: The headline for the review was written by a staff member, not by the reviewer.

Physics Today