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Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life Hardcover – May 15, 2003
"Rebound" by Kwame Alexander
Don't miss best-selling author Kwame Alexander's "Rebound," a new companion novel to his Newbery Award-winner, "The Crossover,"" illustrated with striking graphic novel panels. Pre-order today
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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.
About the Author
Leonard Mlodinow lives in Pasadena, California.
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The author starts with his own great interest in chemistry and mathematics, spending a year at the kibbutz in Israel where the best reading material are books by Feynman. He becomes interested in physics and math, pursues a graduate degree, publishes some very interesting work in interpreting quantum mechanics. This results in an offer to become an assistant professor at Caltech with an office just down the hall from Feynman. It is a dream position for most starting scientists and special in that he could choose to do virtually anything he wants. Unfortunately this causes him to question his own ability to continue to produce top level research. He decides to use Feynman, who is dying of cancer, as a sounding board for his ideas and dreams.
Mlodonow speaks about Feynman’s unique character and way of approaching problems, and compares him with Murray Gell-Man who has a nearby office. Mlodonow meets and talks with Feynman discussing how to choose a worthwhile research project. Feynman points out that using imagination and looking at the world around you and playing with ideas works for him. For instance changing the number of dimensions available- what if there were two time dimensions available.
Mlodonow finds that Gell-Man is more interested in progressing with string theory than is Feynman. The balance is finding a research problem that could be very important and at the same time doable and interesting. This is difficult for the author. He experiments with drugs, talks with janitors, former professors, and colleagues, but finding his research project is difficult. He moves towards string theory and finds Feynman will not give his opinion on whether it is a worthwhile research topic, Instead he forces the author to think for himself. A former professor gets quite angry and accuses Mlodonow of wasting his talents, while Gell-Man thinks there is a real future for string theory.
To keep things complicated Feynman is dying of cancer, Murray’s wife is dying of cancer and the author is diagnosed with testicular cancer. Fortunately for the author his cancer is misdiagnosed, and he lives. The others eventually die of cancer. Mlodonow continues his quest for a problem and to some degree with Feynman’s help finds that he is interested in hard problems where he can use math and realizes that this does not have to be physics. Feynman shows him that’s his real quest is to find his greatest interest then find a problem to work on that feeds that interest. He also points out that there are times to be irrational, such as when listening to comedy. There are times to be very rational and that’s when you’re working on science problems and have fun all the time.
Mlodonow winds up pursuing a number of careers such as a screenwriter, book author, computer game designer and finally back to Caltech as an author and instructor.
Anyone who wants to understand the problem should read "The Trouble With Physics: The Rise of String Theory, The Fall of a Science, and What Comes Next" by Lee Smolin and then read the first few chapters of "The Making of the Atomic Bomb" by Richard Rhodes. Compare the two. Rhodes describes the excitement of theoretical physics in the early 20th century. Smolin described the dead-end that this same field has become in the late 20th century. I think that Mlodinow's angst derived from an impossible task: making progress where thousands of bright people had reached dead ends. What is ironic is that when Mlodinow was a post-doc, the string theory concepts were just getting rolling. Mlodinow thought that string-theory was going to be the way out of the dead end, but that he just wasn't smart enough to follow it. Now, in the early 21st century, It looks quite likely that string theory is another of the dead ends.
This book is *not* mostly about Feynman. Other reviewers have pointed this out. The author's interactions with Feynman are in the book but for the most part, only as they relate to Mlodinow's anxiety and uneasiness about his career. However, I must admit that what I did read in "Feynman's Rainbow" has motivated me to get out my unread copy of "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" and move it to the on-deck circle of my to-be-read shelf.