Quantum Man

One posthumous measure of a person's life is how often you imagine his impossible return to deal with some event he never lived to encounter. You picture his reactions, his advice, his sage commentary and humorous asides.  For instance, I think about Mark Twain's hypothetical take on current events several times a week. That's the legacy of Twain's achievements and character.


By this measure, I believe, famed physicist Richard Feynman still bulks large in the collective psyche of a certain segment of mankind. Nearly twenty-five years after his death, those who knew him personally and those who enjoyed only a book-based familiarity with the man are still imagining how he would react to new scientific discoveries, new headlines, and new cultural trends. How we could have used his irreverent insights into the Fukushima nuclear disaster, for instance.


Surely a sign of this unfading interest is Lawrence Krauss's sprightly yet majestic new biography, Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science, which does a bravura job of reincarnating the unique personality that was Richard Feynman.


As the book's subtitle dictates, Krauss will focus on Feynman's life in science, assuredly the consuming passion of Feynman's existence. We will, insofar as possible, live through the intellectual battles and victories that preoccupied Feynman, sharing his fruitful deductions and dead ends, his initial impetuses toward discovery, his attainment of heights of visionary insight not given to lesser scientists. To do this, Krauss has to lay out a lot of physics and history of science, and he does so with topnotch clarity. Consider, as just one example, his guided tour of Bose-Einstein condensates, those strange materials that form at temperatures near absolute zero. The counterintuitive behavior of this kind of strange matter is laid out brilliantly. But more crucially, Krauss makes us understand why BEC fascinated Feynman for the deeper secrets the field held. Nor is Feynman's career as an inspirational teacher slighted, with firsthand testimony from Krauss about the seminal place that the famous Feynman Lectures on Physics hold right up to the present.


And of course, since science is a cooperative enterprise, we get to see how well Feynman played with his peers, such as at various pivotal conferences like the one at Shelter Island in 1947. And because Krauss is himself a well-known physicist, he can perform reportorial miracles by interviewing his fellow scientists such as Marty Block, present at a 1956 meeting where a slightly discreditable tale about Feynman originated, and which Krauss now proves untrue.


But this core focus does not mean Krauss will neglect the more "human" elements of his hero. All the fabled Feynman eccentricities are present—scientific satori in strip clubs!—even those behaviors such as his womanizing that might reflect badly on the man. Krauss sees where Feynman sabotaged himself: "…a character trait that would come back to haunt him: he didn't want to follow other physicists' leads." But in general, the human portrait that Krauss sketches is one of a lively, humorous, generous, loving man who also chanced to be a scientific genius.


Krauss's ultimate assessment is that "Feynman's work contributed to a new understanding of the very nature of scientific truth." This judgment puts me in mind of another quirky genius, Miles Davis, who once boasted that he had personally revolutionized jazz three or four times.


I wonder what Feynman would have to say about that comparison?

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo's column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.



July 24: On this day in 1725 John Newton, the slave trader-preacher who wrote the hymn "Amazing Grace," was born.

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