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Richard Feynman: A Life in Science Hardcover – July 1, 1997
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Richard Feynman was something of a rarity: a science superstar. Like another superstar who preceded him, Albert Einstein, Feynman's science was ahead of his time, but it was his qualities as a human being that caught the imaginations of ordinary people. A whole body of legend has grown up around the man--much of it promulgated by Feynman himself--and nearly 10 years after his death he remains a popular subject of memoirs, biographies, and even films. In Richard Feynman, respected science writers John and Mary Gribbins combine biography with popular science in this absorbing look at the great man's life and work.
Though there's little new information about Feynman's personal life and interests here--everything from his passion for bongo drums to his fascination with the country of Tuva has been documented many times and in many places before now--the Gribbons do an exemplary job of explaining just why Feyman was such a giant among physicists. Quanatum theory is the kind of subject that could give the average reader a raging headache, yet the Gribbons explain it so well that by the end of Richard Feynman even the most non-scientific among us will be able to appreciate just what a singular contribution to our world this science superstar made.
From Library Journal
Over the last decade, the number of books published by or about the brilliant scientist Richard Feynman constitutes what might be called "Feynmania." Conscious of this, the authors (Fire on Earth: In Search of the Doomsday Asteroid, LJ 6/1/96) begin this book by asking: "Does the world really need another book about Richard Feynman?" Obviously, they think so. They aspire to show both the ingenious scientific and quirky human sides of the man, which they do admirably. Still, their own question remains. James Gleick's Genius (LJ 10/1/92) is the definitive biography, but it may be too ponderous for some readers. More personal accounts can be found in Christopher Sykes's No Ordinary Genius (LJ 4/15/94) and in Feynman's own Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman (LJ 3/15/85). Collectively, they cover all of the territory of this new book. "Feynmaniacs" will find nothing new here, but Gribbin's work might find a niche among public library patrons.?Gregg Sapp, Univ. of Miami Lib., Coral Gables
Copyright 1997 Reed Business Information, Inc.
Top customer reviews
I am no physicist, and did not regard the book as an opportunity to try and become one, but I am now sufficiently intrigued to have a go at Feynman's introductory lectures.
In that sense, [of] QED, the Gribbins have fashioned an explorer.
His sister also had an interest in science and became a PhD in solid state physics. She would occasionally try to read the same technical books that he did. He suggested to her the best way to work through a difficult book was to go as far as she could, then when the going got really difficult start to read the book over from the beginning.
He was good at experimenting with and fixing electric and electronic household devices. He was also good at science and math. He avoided the usual bullying by older students by helping them with their homework. Melville, his Dad, was constantly pointing out that knowing the name of something is not the same as really understanding what it is and what it does. For instance recognizing a blue jay isn't the same as understanding its niche with all these complexities in the environment. This wanting to understand as deeply and completely as possible became part of his life- a great gift.
Another important factor was learning to use the Principle of Least Action from his physics high school teacher. Feynman seemed to be more enchanted with using this principle for solving a wide range of problems than most physicists.
This was a time when quantum theory was being developed and Feynman was fascinated with it. In particular he was intrigued by the double slit experiment which seemed to show that light and electrons could behave as waves and shortly thereafter as particles and vice versa. The author does an excellent job explaining the physics of the time, especially Dirac's contributions to quantum mechanics. In the development of Dirac's famous equation there were generally two answers available the first applied to electrons. It was later found that the second solution, an imaginary number that involves the square root of -1, actually applied to an unknown particle now called a positron.
Feynman was accepted at MIT as a mathematics major. He roomed in a fraternity with two physics majors and found himself fascinated by the application of math to physics. There was also a practical aspect, he felt that being a physicist would offer more opportunities for employment. The fraternity was set up so that the more studious students were required to help the more social students with their course work. The more studious students were required to go to parties with the more social students. Feynman found that this helped his overall development.
Feynman graduated from MIT and decided to work with John Wheeler at Princeton. Wheeler was only a few years older than Feynman and a towering, brilliant physicist. Feynman thrived at Princeton and barely finished his PhD before starting work on the Manhattan Project during World War II.
Gribbin includes some interesting data: Richard's IQ was 123, his sisters 124. Personally I've known people who had a 200 IQ and never accomplished major breakthroughs. So much for IQ having predictive power for a person actually using genius. He could also keep a very accurate count in his head by hearing the numbers and he could read at the same time, but not have a conversation. A colleague could also keep count mentally but he saw the numbers and he could converse at the same time but he could not read at the same time. Intriguing.
Feynman's wife was misdiagnosed as having typhoid, he researched her symptoms and correctly diagnosed it as tuberculosis, a death sentence at the time. Despite strong opposition of friends and family they married.
His work with Wheeler at Princeton involved the possible interaction between two electrons, the field of one affecting the other. In a similar fashion to Dirac he found using both the real and the imaginary solution of equations was useful. This required interpreting the imaginary solution as the electron travelling back in time! This meant that changing the direction in which an electron is moving through time is equivalent to changing the sign of its charge, so that an electron going forwards in time is a positron going backwards in time, and vice versa. In his usual style of thinking from fundamentals he found that using the Lagrangian method was more fundamental than the Hamiltonian, which is used by most physicists.
Presenting his research at Princeton meant that his audience frequently had Nobel prize winners in physics and math such as Einstein and John Von Neumann. As most people would be he was quite nervous before presentation, but unlike many, once he was into the physics all nervousness disappeared and there was just the aim to make physics as clear and understandable as possible.
In solving some of his thesis problems he found a new way of doing quantum mechanics, which was based on the principle of least action. It turns out this is a logical progression from Newtonian physics and requires much less of a leap of faith than using waves in the Hamiltonian approach. Despite being easier it did not catch on immediately.
Feynman was juggling quite a bit. He was doing top notch physics especially quantum mechanics, top level research, making contributions to the war effort, married to a very sick wife and trying to finish up his PhD thesis. He became part of the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos, New Mexico. His wife Arline was so sick she had to be hospitalized in Albuquerque, quite a distance from Los Alamos. He continued successfully meeting many demands and made deadlines successfully. He made a name for himself since he was able to explain difficult science and engineering projects and invigorate many programs to higher efficiency.
He next worked with Bethe at Cornell University. At first he was overwhelmed with office responsibilities and trying to live up to peoples expectations. Several of his mentors pointed out that he was doing fine and what people expected. He then decided to go back to working on problems that were fun for him. While eating in a student residence he saw a plate with the Cornell emblem on it tossed like a Frisbee. This got him thinking about what caused the motions involved, and was eventually developed it into his Nobel prize winning QED(quantum electrodynamics) theory. He had some problems explaining his way of understanding to people since he used a combination of visual intuition, mathematics and mathematical tricks with relativity.
Freeman Dyson was a friend, a top level physicist, and very interested in understanding Feynman’s theory. Dyson wrote a paper describing three different approaches to QED making the area much more understandable. Overtime this theory proved quite successful in solving many problems that had been impossible with quantum mechanics. At a meeting Dyson mentioned that there were two outstanding questions. They were problems involving the scattering of light, photons, by an electric field, and the scattering of photons by other photons. Being present at the meeting Feynman took about two hours to answer both these questions using his theory and tools. Those present felt it was the most dazzling display of Feynman's power that they had ever seen. These were problems that the greatest physicists had spent months on yet failed to solve. This said a lot about Feynman's way of solving problems.
Mentally Feynman would have visual images connected with math equations while working in QED. He developed the Feynman diagrams as a type of notation representing the physical relationships and vertexes in the diagrams represent math equations. They provide a way of visualizing, checking and calculating the results of interactions between the many subatomic particles. The Feynman diagrams are now tools used by most researchers in this field.
He began dating again, frequently meeting coeds in the Cornell University cafeteria, and making trips to Las Vegas. He wound up marrying Mary Lou Bell, a blonde bombshell and student of art history. She was bright, but interested in all the things that he was not, the marriage lasted only a short while. He became interested in travel and particularly enjoyed Brazil for the climate and culture. While teaching, real learning and understanding continued to be his message to all students. While in Brazil he begins missing Mary Lou and marries her again, again for short time. Traveling in Europe meeting some great physicists there he encounters Gweneth Howarth a young English woman, who looked good in a bikini. He hires her as a maid in California and after a few years they marry and remain married for the rest of his life.
Back at Caltech he used his unique way of looking at problems to explain superfluidity and weak interactions in the nucleus with good success using his Feynman diagrams. He was less successful tackling superconductivity and gravity. He also committed to reinventing freshman physics by giving the Feynman lectures supposedly for freshman. Gribbin thinks this may be his greatest contribution as a teacher of teachers. The lectures made significant contributions to updating the material covered including his usual design of starting with the fundamentals and thinking through to a conclusion. He included humorous anecdotes and examples from to history. A lively lecture style made the lectures popular, but the 3 volume set of the lectures was never adopted as a freshman text at any college including Caltech. The books are tough to read, but plowing through sometimes gives insight.
He also wrote books for general readers such as “Surely Y what what what hello goodbyeou’re Joking Mr. Feynman,’ and others. He explains how a new law is looked for. “First we guess it. Then we compute the consequences of the guess to see what would be implied if this law that we guess is right. Then we compare the results of the computation to nature, with experiment or experience, compare it directly with observation, to see if it works. If it disagrees with experiment it is wrong. In that simple statement is the key to science. It does not make any difference how beautiful your guess is. It does not make any difference how smart you are, who made the guess, or what his name is-if it disagrees with experiment it is wrong.” It appears that a number of theories such as supersymmetry, etc., are close to violating this basic idea.
As he aged he still made significant contributions to physics. During one of his slow periods he reminded himself that it is best to start with the most basic ideas after a meeting with James Watson, of DNA fame. He continued to develop his own thoughts from excellent experimental data. This approach was to think about most general case and use his mathematical insights and his physical intuition to make progress on problems. The results we're frequently much easier for the average scientist to understand and to use. The author seems to think that's Feynman’s scientific writings are assessable by all of us. To give it a try you can Google the Feynman lectures and find them free online. Try to understand his starting point- the principle of least action which is in chapter 19-1. There are also videos available by others on YouTube. I tried this myself and it was an interesting journey. Feynman’s suggestion to his sister for studying hard material -that she should read as far as she could understand then start reading again from the very beginning, and repeat until the material is understood, is useful advice. It is also very time consuming.
His interests extended to trips to Mexico for hiking and camping. A serious bout with cancer slowed him down, but even a few days before a major operation he was still successfully solving physics problems. His last big display of his power was investigating the Challenger explosion. He used his ability to explain clearly the problem by doing a simple demonstration with a small o-rings, a clamp and some ice water.
He continued to write, think, and help students understand his beloved physics. He is missed.