Saturday, May 31, 2008

Genius: The Life & Science of Richard Feynman

I read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” some years ago, and it still remains one of my favourite books. So when I came across Genius: The Life & Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick, there were hardly any second thoughts about purchasing it outright.

The book opens with a classic Feynman quote, (one that a few of us pompous fellows could learn something from)… “I was born not knowing, and I have only had a little time to change that here and there.”

Unlike “Surely You're...” this biography attempts and succeeds as a serious approach to the life of one of the most nonconformist scientists. It discusses his childhood, the influence of his parents, esp. the father on young Richard’s thinking, and then traces a brilliant career that spans MIT, Princeton, Cornell and finally, the Caltech. It does fall the bit short on Feynman’s work on the atom bomb (the Manhattan Project) at Los Alamos, but the description of scientists’ thoughts and feelings on the day they successfully tested the first bomb (Trinity test – 5:30 AM, 16 July 1945) makes up for it.
Next, we read about Feynman’s involvement with quantum electrodynamics, for which he was awarded Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 (shared with Julian Schwinger and Shinchiro Tomonaga). It is clear that the author has expected some familiarity with the terms of high-energy particle physics, without which these chapters become quite incomprehensible.

Feynman has been considered a fantastic teacher, for the way he tried to teach from the fundamentals and brushed aside anything that hindered creative, free-wheeling thinking. The “Feynman Lectures on Physics” have been regarded as classic textbooks for a student of higher physics.

The book concludes with Feynman’s role in the committee that investigated the Challenger Space Shuttle tragedy of 1986. In his characteristic way, Feynman approached the problem as a scientist would and discovered the root cause to be a lapse in adherence to the safety procedures by NASA.

What makes this particular biography special is the way it brings out the emotional, personal side of this maverick physicist. Feynman had a deeply emotional love for Arlene, whom he married in spite of protests of his parents (she had then-fatal tuberculosis of lungs). Their letters reveal a man of immense passion, integrity and strength. After Arlene’s death he seems to have tried to bury his grief in a series of torrid and short-lived affairs.

This biography is a must-read for everyone that wants to know the real man behind the mask of wise-crack we meet in “Surely You’re…”

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