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VINE VOICEon March 3, 2011
I still remember the day when, as a kid, I first came across the irrepressible Richard Feynman's memoirs "Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman". Within a few hours I was laughing so hard that tears were coming out of my eyes. Whether he was fixing radios 'by thinking', devising novel methods of cutting string beans in a restaurant or cracking the safes at Los Alamos, Feynman was unlike any scientist I had ever come across. Feynman died in 1988 and James Gleick's engaging and masterful biography of him appeared in 1993. Jagdish Mehra's dense, authoritative scientific biography came out in 1996. Since then there has been a kind of "Feynman industry" in the form of tapes, books, transcripts, interviews and YouTube video clips. While this has kept Feynman alive, it has also turned him into a kind of larger-than-life legend who is more famous in the public mind for his pranks and other exploits than for his science. Most laymen will tell you that Feynman was a brilliant scientist but would be hard-pressed to tell you what he was famous for. It's time that we were again reminded of what most contributed to Richard Feynman's greatness- his science. Lawrence Krauss's biography fulfills this role. You could think of Gleick's biography as a kind of Renaissance painting, an elaborate piece of work where he gets everything accurate down to the eyebrows of the men, women and Gods. Krauss's biography is more like the evocative impressionistic art of the French masters, more of a lucid sketch that brings out the essence of Feynman the scientist.

The biography is essentially aimed at explaining Feynman's scientific contributions, their relevance, importance and uniqueness. Thus Krauss wisely avoids pondering over oft-repeated details about Feynman's personal life. He compresses descriptions of Feynman's childhood, the tragic story of his first wife's death and their extremely touching relationship and his time at Los Alamos into brief paragraphs; if we want to learn more we can look up Gleick or Feynman's own memoirs. What concerns Krauss more than anything else is what made Feynman such a great scientist. And he delivers the goods by diving into the science right away and by explaining what made Feynman so different. Perhaps Feynman's most unique and towering ability was his compulsive need to do things from scratch, work out everything from first principles, understand it inside out, backwards and forwards and from as many different angles as possible. Krauss does a great job in bringing out this almost obsessive tendency to divine the truth from the source. It manifested itself at a very early age when Richard was cranking out original solutions to algebra and arithmetic problems in school. And it was paramount in his Nobel Prize winning work.

Krauss succinctly explains how this intense drive to look at things in new ways allowed Feynman to do novel work during his PhD with John Wheeler at Princeton in which he formulated theories that described antiparticles as particles traveling backwards in time. Later Feynman also applied the same approach in using a novel method based on the principle of least action to explain the dizzying mysteries of quantum electrodynamics. Krauss does an admirable job in explaining the physics behind these contributions in layman's terms. Feynman's "sum over histories" prescription involved taking into consideration all of the infinite paths that a particle can take when getting from the beginning to the end point. This was a bizarre and totally new way of looking at things, but then quantum mechanics is nothing if not bizarre. As Krauss describes, the moment of revelation for Feynman came in a meeting where, using his techniques and intellectual prowess, he could finish in a few hours a complicated calculation for mesons that had taken another researcher several months. Krauss also narrates how Feynman brought the same freewheeling, maverick approach to thinking about superfluidity, beta decay, the strong nuclear force, gravity and computing and the book contains the most complete popular scientific treatments of Feynman's thoughts about these important problems that I have seen. The approach did not always work (as it did not in case of superconductivity) but it encouraged other physicists to think in new ways. In fact as Krauss lucidly narrates, Feynman's great influence on physics was not just through the direct impact of his ideas but also through the impact of his unconventional thinking which inspired students and other scientists to think outside the box.

As scientifically brilliant as Feynman was, Krauss also does not gloss over his professional and personal flaws and this biography is not a hagiography. Professionally, Feynman's independent spirit meant that he often would not read the literature and would stay away from mainstream interests which his colleagues were pursuing; while this greatly helped him, on more than one occasion it led to him being scooped. At the same time Feynman also did not care about priority and was generous in sharing credit. As for mentoring, while Feynman was a legendary teacher by way of example, unlike his own advisor John Wheeler he left few bonafide graduate students because of his compulsive tendency to solve problems himself. On a personal basis, probably the most shocking description concerns Feynman's womanizing. It's hard to say how much of it is true, but Krauss describes Feynman's affairs with colleagues' wives, his elaborate methods to seduce women in bars and the personal and emotional entanglements his womanizing caused. At least one fact is jarring; apparently when he was a young professor at Cornell, the boyish-looking Feynman used to pretend to be a graduate student so he could date undergraduates. This kind of behavior would almost certainly lead to strict disciplinary action in a modern university, if not something more drastic. In his early days Feynman was also known for not suffering fools gladly, although he mellowed as he grew older. Later on Krauss details Feynman's more publicly known activities, including his bongo playing, nude painting and his famous demonstration of the failure of the O-rings in the Challenger space shuttle disaster. Feynman's absolute insistence on honesty and truth in science and on reporting the negative results along with the positive ones also comes across, and should be a model for modern scientists. The biography does a good job of demonstrating that in science, true success needs fearlessness, determination and an unwavering belief in your ideas.

Ultimately, it's not Feynman's bongos, nude art and relentless clowning that make him a great man. However, since his death, he has often been perceived that way by the public largely due to the industry that has grown up around him. But Richard Feynman was defined first and foremost by his science and his striking intellectual originality that allowed him to look at the physical world in wholly unanticipated new ways. Krauss's biography performs a timely and valuable service in reminding us why, when we talk about Feynman, we should first talk about his physics.
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on March 22, 2011
I'm an engineer. Over the years I have probably read all the popular books by and about Feynman, and like many others with an interest in physics I own his three volume 'Feynman Lectures on Physics'. I knew I had to buy this little book, when in a bookstore I opened it to a random spot and in a few seconds learned something new about Feynman. (Did I say 'little', well that was my first impression and the pages are small, but there are 320 of them.)

For years I have read about the principle of 'least action' and knew it was one of the keys to Feynman's work, but I never really understood it. Krauss's writing is so clear (even sans equations, or maybe because of it) I now understand the concept, so from this book I am not only learning a little more about Feynman, I am learning some physics too.

This is a biography that focuses on Feynman's technical work. Krauss is not a science writer, though he has done a lot of writing, he is a top rank theoretical physicist, author of 300 papers, director of the Origins Project at Arizona State Univ. I'm so impressed by this book, even though I am now only 20% into it, I had to write to tell Feynman fans ... Buy this book!
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on March 2, 2011
This new volume, very well written by one of the best popular authors on physics, fills a gap in the Feynman bookshelf. At one end is the best biography of Feynman, "Genius" by James Gleick, which includes much personal history. At the other, "QED", by Sylvan Schweber, which covers the entire sweep of the work by Feynman, Dyson, Schwinger, Tomonaga and others on quantum electrodynamics, the centerpiece of Feynman's legacy.

Krauss writes a mainly scientific biography, and manages to cover this work without mathematical detail, but with well-chosen technical illustrations, which give the flavor of the work. Gleick provides much more on the personal life, and if you have the background, Schweber will fill in the details of QED. (If you want more background on Feynman diagrams, beyond the very good introduction in this book, I recommend "Drawing Theories Apart" by David Kaiser.)

Of course one must also read Feynman's own popular writings, both his own and those co-authored, and at the undergraduate level I wish I had his "Lectures on Physics" when I was a student in the early 1950's.

The new Krauss book definitely deserves 5 stars.
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on March 23, 2011
I'm a big fan of Feynman and have read most of many biographies of him and read through his more technical stuff (Feynman Lectures on Gravitation, computation, statistical mechanics, and of course the lectures on physics) so I was a bit confused as to what more could be said. I was pleasantly surprised by this little (320 pages but large font) book that is not a biography of Feynman but a biography of the ideas he had. And he had many ideas!

The other reviews describe my thoughts quite well and I give it five stars for being an excellent scientific biography. It clarified a lot of what I'd heard about the ideas Feynman did and much of the historical context - I always knew Dyson was integral in QED but never quite understood what he did exactly.

My only qualm would be that the lay reader might have a challenge getting through this. My background is in physics so it made for a light read as most of the concepts I had encountered before and understand fairly well. Krauss is not afraid to use technical language (I don't think I've read a popular science book that drops the word Lagrangian so casually) and many of the concepts in this book are first encountered by physics majors at a graduate level (of course in their full glorious mathematical detail) so don't be surprised if you're re-reading sections over and over again to try and understand what is going. Saying that, the explanations are very lucid (for me at least) and well thought out.

I highly recommend this book to any aspiring physics major or working physicist. The section on Wheeler-Feynman theory is quite nifty and I've never seen it presented so clearly elsewhere. For the layman, be warned that this book is not as light-hearted and easy as Feynman's other non-technical work and can't just be read in passing.
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on August 7, 2011
Some time ago, I saw on YouTube Lawrence Krauss's lecture 'A Universe From Nothing', a lecture highlighting his forthcoming book. I very much enjoyed it and I looked forward to meeting him at James Randi's "The Amazing Meeting" (which was held in July, 2011). I met him there and I bought this book and got him to autograph it. I was eager to begin reading it.

I was expecting it to be very good, but was disappointed in it. He tries to convey how Fenyman's theories revolutionized physics and, to some extent, he succeeds. But in many instances, the explanations are very basic and in other instances, they are overly-complex. His stories jump around quite a bit and he uses more exclamation points that I have ever seen in a non-fiction book, including four of them in two consecutive paragraphs.

He does show many instances of how Fenyman's work influenced other physicists, but in some cases it looks like he may be stretching the influence. He seems to be claiming, in the latter part of the book, that since Feymnan spent some time on topic A, wrote up a few insights and moved on, and then later a bunch of physicists won Nobel Prizes for their work on the same topic, that he was the driving force behind vast new discoveries. That may be true, but it was unclear from this book how their work was influenced by him, if indeed it was.

It was not a bad book and I am glad that I have read it, but it was not a great book either. For anyone interested in Feynman, they should read his speech at the 1965 Nobel Prize ceremonies where he talked about his journey to develop Quantum Electro Dynamics. He shows mistakes, dead ends, etc, but also the successes. It is one of the most illuminating speeches that I have ever read. [...] Much of Krauss's book fills in the details of Feynman's Nobel Prize speech.
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on March 19, 2011
If you know anything at all about Richard Feynman, you will find Larry Krauss's biography a delight. If you know nothing about Feynman, you find this a wonderful introduction to his accomplishments and to his style of thinking. The latter I think may be Feynman's finest contribution to the world outside of physics. Feynman's life, as Krauss gracefully demonstrates, embodied lessons for all of us when it comes to what it means to truly understand something. For Feynman, understanding came from the ability to calculate numbers that correspond to those that we have managed to wrestle from nature. Understanding, Feynman showed us, resides in the ability to do. This is a lesson we all need to learn.

Full disclosure. I know Larry from his days at Harvard. He has only improved with age. Read this book. You won't regret it.
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on April 3, 2011
Krauss has made a labour of love of this insightful exposition of the scientific contributions of Richard Feynman. Given the existing biographical and scientific work on Feynman, Krauss has done a great job of complementing the work of others, distilling details accounted in Gleick's thorough biography while also presenting some of the science from Schweber's technical history of quantum electrodynamics. While enjoying the privilege of access to Feynman's original papers, Krauss has not included the `Notes' used effectively by some authors of science history. This may have been a recognition of the excellent notes provided by the above authors and acknowledged by Krauss, but it means the reader will need to read the complementary biographies as well (which is not a bad thing) to get the full picture on Feynman's work. There are some one-off topics that Krauss treats where a research trail would have been helpful.

The first gem that Krauss recounts is Feynman's recognition that "the fundamental laws of physics ... can appear in so many different forms that are not apparently identical at first", going on to note that theories may be scientifically indistinguishable but not psychologically identical. This theme is drawn out wonderfully, describing Feynman's youthful encounter with the principle of least action and its interpretation by Lagrange, then showing how Feynman used the Lagrangian to realise Dirac's prediction and reformulate quantum physics with the sum-over-paths method. This is one of many sub-stories that Krauss explores insightfully.

A slight criticism is that the broad-ranging examination of Feynman's ideas becomes a bit of a ramble and care needs to be taken following detail. For example, an excellent discussion of quantum computing is flawed by a lack of distinction between integers and composite numbers when explaining Shor's algorithm. In perspective, however, this is small beer because Krauss's easy and frank, yet highly expert, writing generally enables exceptional and candid insights into science and its practitioners.

This is the second Krauss book I have read lately and I am moved by his ability to explain scientific theory in a way that the reader can comprehend. If you don't get a concept at first, which can be difficult when authors are trying to spare you from the associated but important mathematics, you can reread Krauss and it will usually fall into place.
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on April 26, 2011
The author of this book, Lawrence Krauss, states that he " ... was approached about producing a short and accessible volume that might reflect Feynman the man as seen through his scientific contributions, ..." In my view he definitely achieves this goal. I have read many books by, and about, Richard Feynman - mostly they focus on Feynman the person. To find out about his physics it is necessary to read a technical book or article - mostly understandable by only physicists or mathematicians. This book helps to bridge this gap, presenting a picture of Feynman the physicist in language most of us can understand. I did wonder, given the large amount of material already available, whether another book would add much to my picture of who Feynman was, but by the end of the last chapter I was in no doubt - this book considerably broadened my knowledge of the complex person called Richard Feynman and was well worth the read.
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on May 13, 2011
I am a geologist and layman in theoretical physics and have read many of Richard Feynman's books. Quantum Man focuses on the scientific process and discoveries made by Feynman in somewhat chronological order and the significance and impact of each discovery as it relates to the general knowledge of physics. The book is moderately challenging for the layman from a technical viewpoint but very readable and understandable. I highly recommend this book for those who have some familiarity with Feynman and want the perspective of Feynman's works with the larger body of physics.
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on May 5, 2011
There were no startling revelations in "Quantum Man" that I didn't already know after reading "Genius" and others in the Feynman canon, but I was still glad to have it. Dr. Krauss achieved his goal of placing greater emphasis on the mathematical and calculating abilities and less on the entertaining stories. I also liked the anecdotes that gave a greater sense of the person and what it would have been like to hang around with him. A most enjoyable read.
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