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Separating the man and his science from the legend
on 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.