Richard Feynman - A Life in Science

by : John & Mary Gribbin (Dutton)

The opening sentence of the Prologue reads, “Does the world really need another book about Richard Feynman?” Good question. Here’s another good one: why am I recommending a book I didn’t like? Let’s take the authors’ question first. The answer is, maybe, but it probably didn’t need this one. Many of you might remember Richard Feynman as the Caltech physicist who cut a large swath through the bureaucratic tangle surrounding the investigation into the Challenger disaster about a decade ago. In the middle of a press conference called to boldly announce lack of progress, he quietly took a small piece of the material used to make the O-rings that separate sections of the shuttle’s solid rocket boosters, squeezed it tightly in a clamp and dropped it into a glass of ice water. A few minutes later, he retrieved the cold-soaked chunk, released the clamp and what do you know: the O-ring material didn’t spring back to resume its former shape. End of investigation. Viewed in context, it was probably among the least of this extraordinary scientist’s accomplishments. However, it was the most
accessible to the general public, which brings us to the real heart of the matter. In the entire history of civilization, there are a small number of intellectual leaps that stand out as the crowning achievements of the race. An example is Newton’s astounding revelation that the laws governing the motions of planets are the same as those that cause apples to fall from trees. In the twentieth century, we were blessed with two such feats of imagination. The first is Einstein’s General Theory of Relativity, which probably ranks as the biggest of them all because it dared to put forth postulates that were completely counterintuitive – who would believe that things get bigger and heavier as they go faster, or that time itself slows down in the presence of a gravitational field, or that the very concept of ‘simultaneous’ events is illusory? Einstein’s great contribution wasn’t the theory itself, but the invitation to others to think outside the boundaries of empiricism and take nothing for granted, including a goodly number of our most grounded notions. This license to ignore common sense in evolving strange concepts from seemingly innocuous first principles underlies the second great intellectual revolution of this century, that of the development of quantum physics. One of Einstein’s innocuous first principles was that the speed of light is constant regardless of the motion of the observer. This gave rise to insane-sounding conjectures,
such as that gravity bends light, every one of which has thus far proven true in experiment. The innocuous first principle of quantum physics is that the universe at its most basic is not smoothly continuous but
granular. Everything ultimately boils down to something which can no longer be subdivided. There is a smallest allowable length, mass, even the tiniest unit of time that can possibly exist. (First principles again: the reason that the speed of light is the speed limit of the universe is because it is the rate at which light travels over the smallest unit of distance in the smallest unit of time). That doesn’t sound too difficult to deal with, but when you work forward from this simple supposition, things start to get so weird that Einstein himself denied them to his dying day…and he was one of the founders of quantum theory. The most axiomatic concept we possess, for example, is that cause precedes effect. Something happens, and this causes something else to happen. I drop an egg - then it breaks. But in the quantum world, this concept is abandoned. Sometimes, things happen now because of something else that hasn’t happened yet, but will soon. Other times, things happen for absolutely
no reason at all. Other strange results make themselves apparent as well. We think of such things as electrons as, well, things; little point-like particles whizzing around in the space enveloping atoms. But quantum physics shows us that electrons can also be thought of as waves, little different from light waves. So which is it, really? The answer, really, is that an electron isn’t really much of anything until we do something to make it pop up in one of its two forms, wave or particle. Otherwise, it’s just hanging around in a phantom zone of marginal reality with no
real objective form at all. Truly, as one physicist has put it, quantum particles are the dreams that stuff is made of. The glory of quantum mechanics is that it goes to the very heart of the very heart of the physical universe, putting to scientific test theories that heretofore were the province of speculative philosophers with entirely too much leisure time on their hands. Kant might have made his reputation espousing the objective reality that lies at the core of everything (“the thing within the thing”), but the modern physicist can just say no to Kant, and prove it. And so the quantum theory, without question, is the most profound statement that has ever been made about the way things are, and hardly anybody in the whole world has any idea what the hell these guys are talking about. And that’s a very big shame. The problem is that, in a very literal sense, mathematics is the language of physics. And it’s not just simple algebra we’re talking here but a brand of mathematics so esoteric that there are even rules for canceling out countervailing infinities when they become too troublesome to deal with directly (e.g., if the attraction between a proton and an electron is a function of the distance between them, then
the attraction must be infinite when they’re touching…a major no-no). Relativity is pretty mathematical, too, but it’s not difficult to explain what that mathematics means in the real world. The meaning of the mathematics of quantum theory is more difficult to explain in real world terms, but not impossible. The problem is that physicists who are in total agreement on the math can differ wildly on the meaning. This forms the basis for one of the
liveliest ongoing debates in the history of science. (If you have enough Prozac handy, check out
http://mist.npl.washington.edu/npl/int_rep/tiqm/TI_toc.html for an overview of this controversy.) As I said, this lack of visibility among the general populace is a shame, because delving into the quantum world even a little will pretty much shatter any latent complacency you might harbor concerning the nature of things. Which brings us to both Richard Feynman and John Gribbin. Feynman was not in on the ground floor of the evolution of quantum theory; he was too young, having been born when the groundwork had already been laid. However, he was arguably one of its foremost developers, coming up not only with fresh ideas and novel concepts, but with general conceptual tools that would allow others to make their own contributions. The reason his is not a household name is that, while one can easily give the average Joe a pretty good feel for Einstein’s theory of relativity over a long cup of coffee, this is not as easily done with quantum theory. Suffice it for our purposes here to note that the Feynman contribution known as QED is the single most successful theory of the physical universe ever. To use Feynman’s own analogy, its accuracy is akin to measuring the distance between New
York and Los Angeles and being off by the width of a human hair. Awarding him the Nobel for QED was a giant yawn of a no-brainer. So what is QED? It tells you how photons interact with
electrons. Gave you shivers, I know. That’s why few outside the field know who Feynman really is or what he did. Truth is, Feynman was an intellectual giant who made many incredible contributions to physics,
concepts so important they changed forever the way physicists would think about their field. This brings us to the Gribbins' rationale for writing yet “another book about Richard Feynman.” As it happens, Feynman had one whale of a good time doing physics. He did it because it was fun, and when it wasn’t fun, he didn’t do it, instead dabbling in fields as diverse as biology, computing and bongo drumming. He was also, hands down, the finest teacher of physics who ever lived. As a first-year physics undergraduate myself, my sharpest memory before I left that field was of sitting alone in a dreary, windowless room on the second floor of the physics building and popping in a videocassette of something called The Feynman Lectures. I slumped down in the chair, prepared to be bored into madness, doing this only because a good friend said I should. When the tape ended about an hour later, I blinked as I came out of a trance and finally brought my jaw back up, and realized that I had been in the presence of greatness. It was a performance, not a lesson, an exposition of physical principles delivered by a guy so nutso in love with the topic that oftentimes his voice choked with barely-repressed emotion. He had a clarity of style so compelling you couldn’t resist absorbing the knowledge if you tried. The Lectures have since become
classics, along with written compilations of other talks that have gone on to become best-selling books.
The Gribbins set themselves the task of bringing out these other sides of Richard Feynman, and in that sense they succeed only barely. First, there is really nothing new in this book that hasn’t been dealt with
elsewhere, and better, most notably by James Gleick in his book, Genius. Second, while a great deal of simplification is absolutely necessary to convey some sense of the topic without overwhelming the novice, there are many statements in this book that are unnecessarily absolute, definitive and downright misleading. Telling us that QED explains “everything there is to explain about interactions involving electrons and photons [and] everything there is to explain about weak interactions” is inappropriate, giving us the impression that, on the day
QED was published, all research in this area came to a screeching halt. Third, and perhaps most unforgivably, you quickly come to realize that this book is less a careful examination of a man’s life and work than it is a fawning, sycophantic adoration that attempts to elevate a mere mortal into the status of near-deity. This completely non-critical worship (of a man neither of the Gribbins ever met) becomes wearing and tedious after a while, especially when the authors provide testimonials from other notable scientists that add nothing of substance to the idolization, but seem to be some kind of attempt to externally validate the authors' opinions, as though they themselves may have realized they were overdoing it and brought in evidence to prove to us
they weren’t kidding. And just when we think we’ve had just about enough of that, they
crank it up another notch, this time in the form of a competition to see who among the elites of physics was the very best, starting on page 189. We learn that Feynman made more major contributions in a greater number of decades than any other physicist, including Einstein. We learn that, had the Nobel committee had their heads screwed on correctly, Feynman would rightfully have won three prizes, not just one. And just in case the clearly superior box score is still not evident, we learn that Murray Gell-Mann, the brilliant Nobelist who shared a secretary with Feynman at Caltech, was really a somewhat nasty sonofagun who was more interested in looking smart than being smart and, if you read between the lines, probably didn’t really deserve his
own Nobel prize. Well, then: why do I think you should read this book? Because I feel that anything that has an outside chance of getting nonscientists to think about the quantum world is worth pursuing. When I was in elementary school, we had a series of about a hundred biographies of well-known Americans: Knute Rockne,
Thomas Edison, Abraham Lincoln, Glenn Cunningham, etc. Geared for kids, these books were breezy, easy editions that read more like public relations releases than serious studies of people’s lives. But we
read them and, in many cases, they stuck with us when we got older and spurred us on to read more serious works about these people. Richard Feynman - A Life in Science reads a lot like those books. I’ve read nearly all of John Gribbin’s books on physics and he is the John Grisham of the field, coincidence of name notwithstanding.
The best way for the amateur to come to the physics is through the people who made the physics, and the Gribbins do a reasonably good job of interweaving the two. There is a great deal of oversimplification
of the science, but the fact is that there is no other way to do it and keep the difficult mathematics out of it. So, in the sense of introducing you to an extraordinary character (when Feynman got bored during his
work on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb during World War II, he cracked top-security safes just for laughs) and extraordinary science, the book has merit, and won’t tax your brain too much. However, if you’re willing to stretch just a wee bit more, here’s a much better idea: Read Genius by James Gleick, and In Search of Schroedinger’s Cat by John Gribbin. The former is the best yet look at Feynman’s work and life, and the latter may be the best single-book introduction to quantum physics you’re likely to come across for “the average Joe." My criticism of A Life in Science aside, perhaps only Isaac Asimov rivals Gribbin in his ability to translate the mostarcane of scientific theories into breezy readabilty for popular consumption.
-Lee Gruenfeld