Skip to main content

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.
Paperback:  
Also in hardback:  
Also on Kindle:  
Also as audio CDs:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …