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Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life Hardcover – May 15, 2003

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

The late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman has been virtually canonized as the People's Physicist-an earthy, bongo-playing free spirit who delighted in puncturing the pomposity of the establishment. In this memoir, by ex-physicist and Star Trek writer Mlodinow, of a stint as a post-doctoral colleague of Feynman's at Caltech, the aging physicist still cracks wise, crashes parties, works on his physics at a strip joint and needles stuffed-shirt academics. Mlodinow was something of a Feynman-esque character himself-he liked to smoke pot with the garbage man next door and was working on a screenplay-so he turned to the older scientist for life lessons. And that's where this otherwise engaging book goes wrong, because, truth be told, Feynman was at his best only when talking about physics. Mlodinow taped many of their conversations, and transcribes them at length here, to the book's detriment. Feynman holds forth on the creative process, art and modern novels ("The few that I've looked at, I can't stand them"), but as far as insights go, platitudes like "Remember, it's supposed to be fun" (a thought inspired by the titular rainbow) are about as good as it gets. Fortunately, Mlodinow's accessible style manages to convey Feynman's cantankerous appeal as well as some of the weirdness of theoretical physics without overtaxing lay readers, while his deft, funny, novelistic portraits of its practitioners, like the (as portrayed here) toweringly pretentious and touchingly human Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann, bring this seemingly gray sub-culture to vivid life.
Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information, Inc.


“An accessible portrait of a brilliant man.” —Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time

“A very unusual memoir of a very unusual author’s revealing encounters with a very human legend.” —The Dallas Morning News

“This is a sweetly entertaining book about the weird, but engaging, world of physics. . . . Young scientists will find solace and perhaps inspiration here.” —American Scientist
“Mlodinow’s tribute to the man is set against an amusing, nicely drawn backdrop of campus life, and fleshed out with a very readable account of string theory, which developed into the most promising breakthrough of the century in theoretical physics.” —The Independent (London)
“Mlodinow’s accessible style manages to convey Feynman’s cantankerous appeal as well as some of the weirdness of theoretical physics without overtaxing lay readers, while his deft, funny, novelistic portraits of its practitioners . . . bring this seemingly gray sub-culture to vivid life.” —Publishers Weekly
“An exhilarating book . . . one that reflects the radiance of its subject and so warms as it instructs.” —David Berlinski, author of One, Two, Three: Absolutely Elementary Mathematics
“Mlodinow thinks in equations but explains in anecdote, simile, and occasional bursts of neon. . . . The results are mind-bending.” —Fortune --This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 192 pages
  • Publisher: Warner Books (May 15, 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 044653045X
  • ISBN-13: 978-0446530453
  • Product Dimensions: 5.8 x 0.8 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 10.9 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (78 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #552,895 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Leonard Mlodinow was born in Chicago, Illinois, received his PhD in theoretical physics from the University of California at Berkeley, and is the author of five best-sellers. His book The Drunkard's Walk: How Randomness Rules our Lives was a New York Times Bestseller, Editor's Choice, and Notable Book of the Year, and was short-listed for the Royal Society book award. His book Subliminal won the PEN/Wilson award for literary science writing. His other books include two co-authored with physicist Stephen Hawking -- A Briefer History of Time, and The Grand Design. In addition to his books and research articles, he has taught at Caltech, written for the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and Forbes magazine, among other publications, and for television series such as McGyver and Star Trek: the Next Generation.

Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Shashikiran Kolar on May 11, 2003
Format: Hardcover
Well, this book makes an evening of good reading. Feynman fans would instantly identify with his vintage mannerisms such as scorn for psychology and philosophy, showmanship and his wonder of nature. It contains Feynman's views of how a scientists life should be, how he must go about choosing problems and the emphasis that he must lay on his belief of his capabilities and the problems tractability.
But, more than all the above, this book is about the authors struggles with high expectations. He portrays the emotional lows that graduate students and fresh graduates undergo when they step out to the real world. It tells you that no matter how smart you are, which school you went to, or the quality of work you produce, there would always be moments of self doubt. Feynman himself faced such fallow times more than once, even after he won the Nobel.
Surprisingly, the author does not mention that Feynman went through exactly the same dilemma when he got out of Los Alamos. He was being offered positions with high salary from Berkeley, Institute of Advanced Study, Cornell etc. Feynman felt that he did not deserve these posts as he would not produce any good work any more in his life. How he got over this feeling is a wonderful story in itself.
Overall, I guess the book is worth buying if you are interested in the life of a scientist in general, especially a young one.
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28 of 31 people found the following review helpful By Rob Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on August 13, 2003
Format: Hardcover
There were plenty of famous physicists in the twentieth century, but none as endearing and downright funny as Richard Feynman. If you have ever read his wonderful memoir _Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!_, you know plenty about the humorous side of the serious physicist, the man who originated quantum electrodynamics as well as plenty of other accomplishments within his field, to say nothing of playing the bongos. Now there is an unusual memoir, a tribute from a young physicist who came within Feynman's orbit at Caltech in the early 1980s. _Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life_ (Warner Books) by Leonard Mlodinow gives us another snapshot of Feynman, which would always be welcome, but this one is special. Mlodinow was starting up to be an academic physicist, and got to get advice from Feynman on the task, as well as on what is important in life. Mlodinow presciently taped many of the sessions, and got around to transcribing them only recently. Feynman has lots to teach us still, even if we aren't physicists.
Part of the attraction of this little volume is that while it is about Feynman, it is also about Mlodinow's discomfort as a whiz kid brought in to work at Caltech. He was glad to get the appointment, but also intimidated. "These people at Caltech might actually expect something of me." He didn't know how to start, and floundered for months, until he decided to talk with Feynman, just down the hall, about what he thought about string theory. "Look," Feynman said dismissively, "If you really believed in string theory, you wouldn't come here asking me. You'd come here _telling_ me." The lesson was, find something you believe in and go to work. In Feynman's view, it wouldn't do to work on just anything.
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11 of 11 people found the following review helpful By Cassey Lee on July 17, 2005
Format: Paperback
Richard Feynman and Gell-Man Murray are two towering figures in 20th Century Physics. The book begins with the writer's arrival at Caltech as a fresh postdoc with a PhD from Berkeley in the 1980s. In this little autobiographical book, the author writes about his experiences at Caltech focusing on his interactions with Feynman and Murray - their characters and rivalry. Physics take a back seat in this book. Instead, the author attempts to tell a very human (and sometimes sad) story about himself, Feynman and Murray. I find this book interesting for two reasons. First, the author shares his experience about the insecurities that many PhD graduates have about their ability to do meaningful research work after the PhD (especially when one's PhD work was considered important enough to land a Caltech postdoc). Second, it provides a few glimpses of what Feynman and Murray were like at close range - human beings observed on a daily basis (and at their natural habitat). Overall, I cannot help but get the feeling that Feynman comes across as a more 'humane' person than Murray in this book. The writer doesn't apologize for his bias towards Feynman and he does gives examples of Murray's generosity (e.g. his support and belief on Schwartz who toiled for years with the String Theory). He repeatedly emphasizes on the different styles and outlook (life philosophy) of Feynman and Murray. Feynman is more interested in interesting problems and derives tremendous joy from doing physics. Murray, the smart one who revels in demonstrating his diverse knowledge. At the end, the writer favours Feynman's approach to life partly because of his own interests and inclination - towards writing. For it was Feynman who advocated the pursuit of things that truly brings joy. This is a book that would interest readers who enjoy reading about the lives of eminent scientists especially Feynman.
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8 of 8 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on January 7, 2004
Format: Hardcover
I've been a Feynman fan since back in the 60s. I've read most of the popular books about Feynman and by Feynman, as well as some of his technical ones. Although this book's principle character is the author, there are many interesting snippets from the last few years of Feynman's life. This is a very pleasant book. In addition to containing painless discussions on the work of theoretical physicists, it shows that even the greatest scientific giants have their weak points that make them as human as the rest of us. The book is very well written and in an engaging style that makes it difficult to put down. There are a few lessons in there for all of us.
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