Wise words to Klingon to

Some Time with Feynman
February 13, 2004

Gatecrashing weddings? All part of a life in physics, says Philip Anderson

In the opening pages of his book, Leonard Mlodinow describes his trauma on arriving at Caltech (the California Institute of Technology) in autumn 1981. He has just completed a brilliant PhD thesis, one that became that year's fad in the claustrophobic world of the theoretical physics of elementary particles, for which he has earned a faculty fellowship and an office next to those of the two greatest gurus of this guru-dominated subject, Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. He is consumed by the fear that he may never have another inspiration - that he will become a "one-stringer" who never repeats his early success - and he gives us a brief vignette of one of his new colleagues who is just that (for whom he devises a somewhat transparent disguise). This book is the story of how he works through his traumas, with the help of a rather motley crew of friends, especially the uniquely unself-conscious and unconventional Feynman.

One needs to realise just how special the world of elementary-particle theory is. A good analogy is the professional golfers' world, in terms of numbers of people involved and of extraordinary talent focused on a very concentrated goal, as well as the cosmopolitanism, the competitiveness and the prizes. Perhaps Feynman might be compared to Sam Snead, Gell-Mann to Arnold Palmer and Princeton University's Ed Witten to Tiger Woods. Although the number of players at the top of their game is limited, there is likely to be a teaching professional at your local country club (read college). But there is a little more to it - the theoretical physicists are genuinely towering geniuses who are playing for immortality, or the next best thing; they see themselves as the successors of Newton, Maxwell and Einstein. Moreover, their focus is narrow and their world small and interconnected: some large fraction of these physicists gather every year in Aspen, Santa Barbara, or Erice, and a few other welcoming places with physics institutes (corresponding, in the golf analogy, to The Tour), to discuss the present status of The Problem - which is nothing less than to find the laws of physics that govern the universe.

In such a world it is easy to fall victim to the kind of malaise from which the author suffered, as well as the intellectual snobbery that sees any other pursuit in life as unworthy of the best minds and a waste of talent - an attitude that the author personifies in a visit from a past mentor, "Professor Breadcrumb". The book is an appealing account of how Mlodinow grows out of these rigidities and finds himself a more mature and self-confident person, able to produce at least one more important bit of physics outside of the narrow field of particle physics, and then to realise a screenwriting talent (with Star Trek ) that sets him off on a different course. This maturation, as he tells it, owes much to a series of encounters with the incomparable Feynman, encounters that sometimes he tape-records and is thus able to quote verbatim, making his book in part yet another in the genre of Feynman taped books.

But that is not all there is to the book. It includes strikingly accurate vignettes of others, such as the polymathic scholar-genius Gell-Mann, the almost equally famous secretary-dragon Helen Tate, who served as gatekeeper to the gods, and the young John Schwartz, bearer of the seeds of string theory, whom Gell-Mann was defending against hostile criticism and who turned out to be anticipating the future (in spite of Feynman's barely tolerant scepticism, which I share). And there is Constantine, the wise-guy fellow-postdoc, who seems so cocksure of who to listen to and where to go - until he turns out to have been gently manipulating the data from his computer all along. Mlodinow, in addition to overcoming his self-inflicted crisis, survives a seriously scary, but false, diagnosis of testicular cancer. Cancer also touches Feynman, who is recovering from an operation for the cancer that will kill him in a few years, and Gell-Mann, whose wife has just died from the disease.

Mlodinow has a light touch and manages to make an affecting, if perhaps not very serious, story of his troubled year. And the Feynman vignettes - admiring a rainbow, gatecrashing a wedding breakfast, or simply dispensing uniquely wise advice - are worth a great deal. Also, the author manages unobtrusively to tell a great deal about physics and how it is done.

My enjoyment was enhanced by realising that I had arrived at Caltech on a visiting fellowship in what must have been the same week as Mlodinow, in October 1981. My office was perhaps five doors down the hall, a few steps from that of Schwartz, who was also a friend. I also had in common my own brush with cancer - an unexpected incident, a fortnight after arrival, that subverted my plan to substitute for Feynman in a course a couple of my friends were organising, while he recuperated from his operation. Instead I learnt that Caltech was a pleasant place to recuperate in. Unsurprisingly, since our branches of physics are quite far apart, I cannot recall meeting Mlodinow. Nonetheless, I can testify that his picture of the milieu and of the personae and their concerns at that time is dead on. This snapshot of a certain moment in the world of physics, and of how a young devotee of physics learns some wisdom and more perspective from a great man, is worth reading.

Philip W. Anderson, Nobel laureate, is emeritus professor of physics, Princeton University, New Jersey, US.

Some Time with Feynman

Author - Leonard Mlodinow
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 171
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 0 7139 9643 9

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