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 most 
arcane of scientific theories into breezy readabilty for popular 
consumption.

-Lee Gruenfeld

 

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