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James Gleick


Richard Feynman and Modern Physics

Book review by Anthony Campbell. The review is licensed under a Creative Commons License.
The title of this book is certainly uncompromising. Some people are not very happy with the concept of genius, and at one point Gleick discusses this question. He offers no precise definition but he makes it clear that, whatever one's idea of a genius may be, Feynman certain qualifies as an example.

Feynman's upbringing was in modest circumstances in Far Rockaway, a village in Long Island. From boyhood he showed evidence of an independent mind, an attitude that was fostered by his father, who was keen on natural history but attached no importance to the names that were given to the birds he observed and described to his son.

When Feynman began his studies at MIT it quickly became evident to his professors that here was an exceptional talent. Both then and later he generally avoided learning how other people had solved problems, preferring to work out his own methods. He was always opposed to the prevailing wisdom which held that using the right method was more important than getting the right answer; he believed just the opposite.

Although Feynman had been brought up with no religious belief, the fact that he was Jewish was perceived as a problem at Princeton when he applied for a place there, but a strong recommendation from his professor at MIT ensured his acceptance. He might have remained there, but when the atomic bomb project was started at Los Alamos he was asked to join the team to work on it. His contribution to the project was considerable, but his reputation did not depend just on his scientific ability. He also made a hobby of opening colleagues' safes. Many thought that he did so by listening to the fall of the tumblers in the combinations, but in fact his methods were less esoteric and relied largely on the carelessness with which people chose and preserved their passwords.

While he was at Los Alamos he married Arline, whom he had fallen in love with as a student. She was already seriously ill with the tuberculosis which later killed her, though it was a considerable time before the diagnosis was made. Tragically, her death came shortly before the introduction of streptomycin, which conceivably could have saved her. Feynman's mother disapproved of the marriage and this caused a coolness between them which took a good while to resolve.

After the war Feynman was, understandably, seriously unsettled emotionally He embarked on a long series of complicated love affairs. He was convinced that nuclear war was likely if not inevitable. And the public perception of physicists had changed. No long were they thought of as amiable eccentrics (sockless Einstein with his shock of white hair) whose ideas had no application to the everyday world; now they were seen as possibly sinister magicians making discoveries that threatened human existence. Feynman got a post at Cornell, though it was not clear to him at first what he should work on. His friendship with Freeman Dyson at this time helped him to define the direction of his later work and led to the famous diagrams with which he is still associated.

The final part of Feynman's life was spent at Caltech, after an interlude for a year's sabbatical in Brazil. It was at Caltech that he received the news that he had been awarded the Nobel prize, along with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichiro Tomonaga, for their work on quantum electrodynamics. He was worried about the protocol that the presentation by the King of Sweden would entail, believing that he must not turn his back on the King. He practised jumping upstairs backwards in preparation and was relieved to be told that none of this was necessary

Gleick has done an excellent job of explaining the physics in sufficient but not overwhelming detail. Feynman himself comes alive in these pages. Full justice is done to his astonishing intellectual range and his unswerving scientific honesty. That he was aware of the growth of the 'Feynman legend' and played up to it on occasion is certain, but this in no way detracted from the seriousness which he brought to science.

Feynman died of two rare forms of cancer, possibly the legacy of his time at Los Alamos, though he himself rejected this suggestion. He faced his death with unflinching courage and no compromise in his scepticism about religion.

I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things I don't know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we're here, and what the question might mean …

I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me.

8 April 2011

%T Genius
%S Richard Feynman and Modern Physics
%A James Gleick
%I Abacus
%C London
%D 1992
%G ISBN 9780349105321
%P 531pp
%K biography
%O paperback edition

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