Monday, 16 May 2011

Quantum Man – Lawrence Krauss ****

With the exception of science’s Holy Trinity of Newton, Darwin and Einstein, the scientist who has probably had most written about him is Richard Feynman. Arguably the second most brilliant physicist of the twentieth century, and without doubt the most charismatic, Feynman is a natural biographical subject. To see a video of him giving a lecture, whether you understand him or not, is ridiculously entertaining for a scientist. If he had been played in a movie it should have been by a young Tony Curtis (accent included). And his own stories of his adventures, brilliantly told, if occasionally embroidered, in Surely You Must be Joking Mr Feynman and the like, are unparalleled.
Given all this, do we really need another Feynman biography? The Gleick book Genius surely says all there is to say?
The answer is yes and no. If what you want is a good, approachable biography of Feynman, look no further than Gleick. If, on the other hand, you really want to get a feel for the nature of Feynman’s science, then to turn to Quantum Man. The subtitle is ‘a life in science’ but it should be ‘a life through science’ because physicist Lawrence Krauss makes sure that the science dominates. In fact this is arguably not a biography at all but rather a book on Feynman’s scientific achievements that makes passing reference to his life. So, for instance, his second wife gets no more than half a page of coverage.
The one problem with this approach is the book is neither one thing or another, which can be quite frustrating. Krauss describes the science in more detail than some readers will be comfortable with, but it is all covered fleetingly enough to make it quite difficult to follow. He gives us tantalising peeks at the detail that doesn’t make it into a conventional biography, but fails to explain in enough depth for it to be meaningful, which can be frustrating.
Nonetheless this is a very good book for those who are prepared to work a little at their popular science. I would recommend reading the Gleick book first and would see this almost as a supplement to get more detail of the significance of the science. If Krauss could have made the scientific content more approachable this would have been a marvel of a book. As it is, it is solid and a very useful addition to the Feynman canon.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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