Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science

May 19, 2011

Does the world need another book about Richard Feynman? The legendary physicist's life and work is nothing if not well documented. There are scholarly studies of his main contributions to science, in the theory that unites particles and forces in one interacting system known as quantum electrodynamics. Many volumes present his own discussions of areas of science, including physics and computing theory, from his celebrated lectures. Books compiling Feynman's carefully crafted anecdotes about his life and times, usually depicting his versatile brilliance, and a selection from his letters, have been best-sellers. And James Gleick's superb Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics (1992) is a model biography of a physicist, unrivalled until the publication of Graham Farmelo's 2009 book The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius, about one of the few other 20th-century theorists who worked on Feynman's level.

Lawrence Krauss was persuaded that there was room for one more by a request to contribute to a series on scientific lives that focuses on the science. His goal is, in one sense, modest. He sketches the life, as a backdrop to a detailed account of exactly what Feynman contributed to physical understanding, drawing freely on the published sources. But any dip into this territory is ambitious for a populariser. Feynman grappled with some of the hardest problems in that inscrutable realm where quantum weirdness meets the counter-intuitive reality described in the theory of relativity. The way that he made real progress, and how he did it, needs the most careful explanation for the non-mathematical reader.

Fortunately, Krauss is the best possible author for the job. A theoretical physicist himself, who knew and admired Feynman, he is also a seasoned popular writer. His account of how Feynman re-imagined the probabilistic behaviour of particles captured in the equations of quantum mechanics in terms of thinking about all the possible paths a particle can take through space-time, which occupies the first half of the book, is as clear as you will find.

In the second half, he moves on to his subject's many other interests - almost too many to list. Along with astounding physical intuition and unmatched mathematical virtuosity, Feynman's curiosity was boundless. Krauss' narrative brings this out well, while sketching the character familiar from previous accounts: his genius for inventing solutions to problems of all kinds leading to a combination of omnicompetence with self-sufficiency that did not always serve him well when it came to keeping up with the literature or pursuing novel insights to the point where they turned into actual discoveries.

Even so, his was a life rich with achievement, and his work helped to shape the ideas and approaches of generations of physicists, great and not so great. Krauss is especially keen on the latter legacy. Along with the familiar tales about exploits in safe-cracking at Los Alamos, womanising in the lengthy interval between his second and third marriages, samba drumming and life drawing, Krauss finds many opportunities to emphasise Feynman's scientific influence.

This culminates in the final two chapters in which, in a kind of going-for-broke variant on Whig history, he claims that one aspect or other of Feynman's output prefigured essentially everything that has happened in physics since his death in 1988. I suspect this is exaggerated, but it is impressive to see these connections made. Krauss' version of the life should not stop anyone sampling the pleasures of Gleick's beautifully written biography. But if your interest is in Feynman the physicist, it is an excellent place to start.

Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science

By Lawrence M. Krauss. W.W. Norton, 320pp, £15.99. ISBN 9780393064711. Published 29 April 2011

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