‘Quantum Man, Richard Feynman’s Life in Science’ by Lawrence Krauss
Richard Feynman is one of the icons of modern physics. From a scientific point of view this is sometimes hard to understand. Sure Feynman was brilliant and had a staggering insight into physical problems, but his most famous work, on the theory known as quantum electrodynamics, is pretty esoteric and has little to connect with the average person on the street. Many other physicists were just as brilliant in their own way. But Feynman lived his life in quite an unusually (at least compared to the conventional staid image of an academic physicist). He was the bongo playing, strip joint attending, womanising, lock picking, storytelling maverick and with each telling the stories got more and more polished. This behaviour, coupled with his genius is what would thrust him into the glare of the public eye; a glare that he seemed to enjoy.
Lawrence Krauss’s biography of Feynman has a difficult job. There is already a fairly comprehensive biography in the form of James Gleick’s ‘Genius‘ as well as a significant and detailed scientific biography, ‘The Beat of a Different Drum‘ by Jagdish Mehra. I’ve read both of these books, albeit sometime ago, while I was an undergraduate, and they get to the heart of Feynman and his work. So when a new biography comes out you have to wonder, what will it add?
While I don’t consider myself as a Feynman ‘groupie’, I do subscribe to the fact that there was something very special about the man, and about the way he tackled problems, so Lawrence Krauss’s book was probably always one I was going to buy and read, but I did so against a tinge of cynicism that this was a bit more of a money spinning exercise than any new insight. Now maybe it’s because it is sometime since I have read the other biographies, but my feeling is that this book sits comfortably between ‘Genius’ and ‘The Beat of a Different Drum’. It is a scientific biography, so the more colourful epsiodes of Feynman’s life are touched, but only briefly, and the goal, as Krauss says is:
…focus on Feynman’s scientific legacy as it has affected the revolutionary discoveries of twentieth century physics, and as it may impact any unraveling of the mysteries of the twenty-first century.
This I think is covered very well. The book focuses on the journey to QED and Feynman’s role in this, and more broadly covers much of Feynman’s scientific output in many diverse fields from particle physics and condensed matter physics through to early theories of computation and quantum gravity. The level is perhaps above the casual lay reader, but anyone with a vague hand-waving notion of introductory physics can probably get by. Krauss, I feel, really makes the journey that Feynman and his peers undertake sound an exciting one and highlights that physics as a community can come together to work on these big, esoteric problems. This idea is not one I really see in my field, and to read through those ideas and ‘quests’ again is very inspiring. So I would thouroughly recommend this book to anyone with an interest in Feynman, modern physics, or just the idea of scientific inquiry.
I think one think is clear, within the broad spectrum of modern physics, Feynman was a true polymath and tried very hard to link theory with experimental results or plausible predictions from future experiments. In this regard he was a true great. And as I remember watching him on Horizon many years ago, making physics sound so exciting, and it many cases so simple, I think I have a lot to thank him for, for at least in part sending me on my own path of scientific discovery. I just wish I could think really hard and write down the answer.
(And after reading this, I may have to go and read ‘Genius’ again).