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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 October 29, 2017
I love Lawrence Krauss. I love Richard Feynman. This is a rare history of Feynman’s mind, of his thinking. It is serious, for physicists. I could follow about 5% of the physics. But Krauss is such a great explainer and Feynman is such a singularly unique individual that it was like watching a really good grandmaster chess match. Everybody in 20th century physics is in this book. I was constantly selecting some person or concept’s name and then linking out to Wikipedia. I re-read Lawrence Krauss’s books every couple of years. I’ll certainly add this one to the collection!
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on June 27, 2012
The is an excellent scientific biography, that is one that focuses on the story of the physics that Feynman developed, as opposed to the story of his personal life. If you want a biography of his personal life, I highly recommend Gleick's "Genius", it is 80% about the man and 20% about his physics, whereas this book is 90% about Feynmam's physics. His personal life is discussed, but it is ancillary to the physics in the book. I think that Professor Krauss was largely successful in addressing the questions of:
· What were Feynman's scientific contributions?
· What influenced his scientific ideas?
· What influence did he have on physics?
· What drove him; in essence what made Feynman one of the seminal physicists of the 20th century?

Addressing these questions required quite a bit of physics, but physics that is presented without a single mathematical equation. This was not an easy task, and in some areas Professor Krauss was more successful than in others. I found Feynman's discussion of QED (in his book of the same name) to be superior to that presented here, but I nonetheless did learn some new ideas from this book concerning this subject. Most importantly, I learned that the idea of renormalization was not Feynman's and that it was not just a piece of slight of hand that had to be introduced to overcome the infinities inherent in the theory. I also got a better appreciation of why it may actually be an indispensable reflection of nature, rather than a mathematical shortcut. I particularly enjoyed the discussion of Feynman's approach to quantum mechanics, his work on superfluidity and nuclear physics, and I found the discussion of quantum computers to be extremely illuminating.

Rather than just building on the work of others, Feynman taught himself why things behaved as they did, thus satisfying his need to understand things in his own unique manner. This led him to develop unique solutions to problems, and while this sometimes led him to lose out in the race for the laurels given to the first to explain phenomena, it often had unexpected payoffs, sometimes decades later.

While there are no equations in the book, it contains a lot of physics and readers with no background in this subject will likely be frustrated and disappointed. Thus, I rate this book at five stars only for those with a decent background in physics. This book is probably not a good choice for those who think, based on the books of Feynman anecdotes, that Feynman is a cool guy and want another book about his life that illustrates this. He was indeed a "cool guy", and I think even more so in the way that he tackled physics problems than in his personal life, and this book does an excellent job of describing this. The book shows that Feynman was a unique physicist, one driven to understand nature, rather than the riches that such an understanding might bring.
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on August 25, 2011
I read about the publication of this book in Scientific American, where the author was a contributor. I awaited its release with great expectation. I have a fairly substantial library of books by or about Professor Feynman.
When the book arrived, the first thing I noticed is that it is rather thin and that the text is in a large font making the full text of the book even more sparse.
The first read through proved to be somewhat of a disappointment as there weren't really any personal anecdotes about Professor Feynman that hadn't been contained in many of the other popular Feynman books. My favorite Feynman book is "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track", a collection of letters written to/from Feynman and published by his daughter.
However, the second and third time I read the book, I found some real gems. Explanations of some of Feynman's ideas written in lucid prose for the non-scientist like me. I had breezed over these passages the first time through.
I have always wanted to have a deeper understanding of Feynman's contributions to physics. The famous "Red Books" are for professional scientists, although I found I could obtain good qualitative understandings of some of the subjects because Feynman had the unique talent of first explaining an idea in a more visual way that allowed me to get a good feel for what the idea being conveyed entailed.
Another good book for understanding QED is "QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter", which was derived from a series a lectures Feynman gave to a lay audience.
Overall, I would say this is a good book especially if you are trying to obtain a deeper understanding of Feynman's work and are not a professional or talented in calculus and quantum mechanics but are nonetheless curious about science.
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on March 7, 2014
Krauss shares many of the same beliefs and disbeliefs as Feynman. This is a good book about the things that Feynman got right. If you want to learn what he missed you can read Genius: The Life and Science of Richard P. Feynman. Among the things he missed were quantum mechanics, fire, fluid turbulence, gravity, superconductivity, triboluminescence, inertia, why spin 1/2 particles (like electrons) obey the Pauli Exclusion Principle, and one more thing that I can't remember offhand. That he was smart enough to recognize that these phenomena were not understood is more than I can say for most other scientists. I was able to account for essentially all of them, but it does a rewrite of much of physics.
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on July 9, 2014
must read for anyone interested in contemporary science…..
it is not merely a biography and/or as assessment of Feynman's place in the firmament of 20th century Physics, it is an essay on the complications inherent in being a human being.
And in Feynman's case a human being who was also certifiably different from how fellows in the way that "genius" is measurably different from "wow!! There goes a really smart guy..!"
And on the personal, "what shall I read this evening?" level, this is an extremely entertaining as well as informative book…
Because?
Because Dick Feynman was one hell of a complex, and thus entertaining and informative, fellow.
(Four stars only because 5stars would indicated a plat for saving mankind from itself.)

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on April 3, 2018
Lawrence Krauss is one of the most qualified men to write about matters scientific, especially physics, and he has chosen one of the most interesting subjects, ever, in Richard Feynman's physics....and he writes superbly!
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on September 21, 2012
Having read all of Feynman's autobiographical works, and a good amount of his lectures, I am a fan. This book is *much* better than the previous biography _Genius_ but is still a little drier than I would like for such a raconteur.

The physics content is probably some of the most accessible I've read of his quantum work, but there's no masking that it's still some of the hardest concepts in science even today.

To sum up: I enjoyed the book, I enjoyed learning the things about this man that I hadn't learned before, and I learned more of the physics too.
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on February 22, 2018
A breathtaking journey through the life and work of a unique and inspiring human being. To see the potential of our flawed and sometimes destructive species is truly humbling. It is not often that I brought to tears at the completion of a book nominally about physics. Thank you Laurence!
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on April 3, 2015
Richard Feynman was a brilliant and charismatic individual. I own the hard copy and audio versions of this book and have gone through them a half dozen times to date.
Krauss takes the world of Feynman and QED and puts it where the layman can get a handle on it. "A Universe from Nothing" is another must devour by this man.
For a real treat, look for his ASU videos on Youtube....there's nothing better than a free education!
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