Quantum Man : Richard Feynman's Life in Science Paperback
Perhaps the greatest physicist of the second half of the twentieth century, Richard Feynman changed the way we think about quantum mechanics, the most perplexing of all physical theories.
Here Lawrence M. Krauss, himself a theoretical physicist and a best-selling author, offers a unique scientific biography: a rollicking narrative coupled with clear and novel expositions of science at the limits.
From the death of Feynman's childhood sweetheart during the Manhattan Project to his reluctant rise as a scientific icon, we see Feynman's life through his science, providing a new understanding of the legacy of a man who has fascinated millions.
- Format: Paperback
- Pages: 368 pages
- Publisher: WW Norton & Co
- Publication Date: 26/03/2012
- Category: Biography: science, technology & engineering
- ISBN: 9780393340655
- Hardback from £16.89
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Review by carl.rollyson
Nearly anyone writing about Richard Feynman is bound to seem staid compared with the man himself. The physicist, who won a Nobel Prize for explaining the interaction between electrons and protons in terms of quantum mechanics, was among the century's most celebrated popularizers of scientific thinking. His public talks were transformed into entertaining books like "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" (1985), and he was known for stunningly simple explanations, such as when he explained the disintegration of the space shuttle Challenger using a glass of ice water and one of the rocket booster's defective carbon o-rings. He was also famous for his quirky interests outside of physics—dancing, drawing, bongo playing, a devotion to strip clubs.Lawrence M. Krauss is a physicist, and "Quantum Man" is part of a series dedicated to lives in science, meaning that much of the book consists of technical explanations that will be challenging for general readers. Mr. Krauss often seems to be addressing physics students. While it is undoubtedly important for readers to grasp Feynman's scientific work, Mr. Krauss rarely uses the sort of crystal-clear language with which Feynman himself used to enlighten listeners. Here, for example, is Feynman's introduction to physics for undergraduate students as recorded in the "The Feynman Lectures on Physics: The New Millennium Edition" (2010):"If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another."It would be misleading to imply that Feynman's lectures are always as lucid as his one-sentence definition of the atomic hypothesis. But in many cases Mr. Krauss could have simply availed himself of his subject's own words.Furthermore, even in a biography devoted to a man of science, the man has to emerge in situ, and such is rarely the case in Mr. Krauss's book. Perhaps because so much has already been written by and about Feynman, Mr. Krauss takes his subject's personality for granted. As Feynman himself liked to counsel young scientists: Never rely on the experiments of others. A biographer of Feynman should approach this most unusual genius by doing something fresh.Mr. Krauss certainly finds room to discuss Feynman's offbeat personality, but he refuses to speculate on how it might have influenced his science. To be sure, Feynman disparaged the notion that his interests outside of science had anything to do with his physics. But such denial should serve to challenge the biographer: Feynman never worried about looking like a fool—as he said countless times to anyone who would listen—and neither should his biographer.Take Feynman's desire to understand how electrons can behave as particles, as waves and as both, all at the same time—and can even be in two different places at once. Such behavior is not possible according to classical physics, but quantum mechanics suggest that it is. Feynman may have understood such logic—at least in part—because he retained a child-like quality, a sense of play, throughout his life. In a child's world you can be here and elsewhere at the same time—in Kansas and with the Wizard of Oz.Linkages of these sorts can in fact be forged by reading Mr. Krauss alongside Feynman's own posthumous publications, such as "The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist" (1998) and "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" (1999), in which Feynman discourses about himself and his intellectual adventures. Usually the biographer serves as a kind of check on a subject like Feynman, who, it is presumed, mythologized himself as most autobiographers do. But in this curious case, Feynman has to be consulted to make sense of his biographer's narrative.James Gleick's "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" (1992) is a more supple treatment of the same basic material. To pick just one example, Mr. Krauss does not mention until page 210 that Feynman's sister, Joan, was also a physicist, while from Mr. Gleick we learn that she served as his lab assistant early in his career. Even so, neither volume quite gives readers the sense that they have penetrated beneath the flamboyant physicist's public pose—if that's what it was. Could Feynman really have been as genial and entertaining a fellow as he seemed? After all, Mr. Gleick notes that many of the justly famous Feynman sayings that seemed so spontaneous in his lectures and interviews were in fact labored over in private.Yet consulting his selected letters, "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track" (2005), reveals the same amusing, shrewd character, evident on every page. This correspondence demonstrates that Feynman was not only a great monologist but a good teacher and interlocutor. One of the best letters is Feynman's reply to a publisher complaining that physics professors were selling complimentary copies of textbooks sent to them. Feynman argues that the very sending of the books accomplishes the publisher's purpose: advertising his wares. If the re-selling of promotional copies prevented the publisher from making a decent profit, Feynman advised, he should stop sending them. As for himself, Feynman concluded, he returned unsolicited books—but now, come to think of it, the publisher had given him a new idea about what to do with them.Besides entertaining himself, why would Feynman spend so much time on such trivial correspondence? (The letter to the publisher is by no means atypical.) This question Mr. Krauss, for one, never asks. When he observes behavior in Feynman that he does not understand, he simply calls it "paradoxical." Perhaps the point about Feynman's character that this reveals is that nothing—at least potentially—was beneath his notice. Just as Feynman wanted to explore the constituents of the atom, he wanted to fathom other minds and would happily engage, say, a member of the John Birch Society in a discussion of the U. S. Constitution rather than simply dismiss extremist views—or even ridiculous ones. There is a lesson there about curiosity that his biographers would do well to heed.