Wednesday, 9 March 2016

Richard Feynman: A Life in Science - John and Mary Gribbin ****

Every once in awhile one comes across books that are out of print that makes one wonder how that possibly could have happened. This biography of Richard Feynman is one of those books that should never be out of print. 

Feynman is a personal hero of mine and I have made it something of a mission in life to consume all the books, audiobooks, videos, podcasts and whatever other media available that has something to do with Feynman. To me, he is endlessly fascinating. With that said, it is easy to be disappointed by many books that have been written about him. There is a tendency to focus on his wild tales without adding any context to them, while certainly not telling them better than the man does himself. There are also many texts that try to capture the man and bypass, to a large extent, his enormous scientific output and why it was important. Some of this is due to Feynman himself who spread so many amusing tales about his adventures, but it is a disservice to those who are particularly interested in physics, and in science in general. This is because Feynman had incredibly important things to say about the nature of science and its limitations, and why it is a beautiful and wondrous thing because of its nature and its limitations. He also demonstrated through his work and, more importantly, how he approached his work, how science should be conducted and what it is to really know something. 

The two books that I have read that have been the best at trying to capture as much of the man as possible, both his irreverent personal side and his scientific achievements, are James Gleick’s excellent biography Genius and Lawrence Krauss’s Quantum Man. The former capturing Feynman’s interesting life and the latter exposing his gigantic contributions to physics and science at large. 

This book written by the Gribbins, however, is the best at combining both elements of the personal and the scientific. John Gribbin is one of the best science writers around and demonstrates, yet again, his splendid grasp of the importance of the science and ability to describe it for the lay reader. The book flows spectacularly well, alternating by chapter between Feynman’s personal life and more in-depth analysis of his scientific exploits. It is stated, and obvious, that Gribbin is an admirer of Feynman, but he treats his subject with as much objectivity as one can expect. Gribbin convincingly argues that had Feynman been faster to publish several of his projects it is conceivable that he could have won at least one more Nobel Prize and possibly more than that for his contributions to modern physics. 

Beyond winning the prize for quantum electrodynamics (QED), Feynman made enormous contributions to the understanding of superfluidity, weak interaction, quantum chromodynamics (QCD) and a quantum theory of gravity. Interestingly, though the book was published in 1998, the chapter on Feynman’s long attempt to develop a quantum theory of gravity chimes well with the recent discoveries by the LIGO project. Had Feynman been in better health and lived longer, it is conceivable that he would have made a major breakthrough in this area as well. 

Another aspect of the book that is excellent is the inclusion of quotes from Feynman’s many televised appearances and recordings to illustrate or make a point. The book feels distinctly modern in that it relies on a wide array of source material to provide a more complete picture of the man and his science.

Though it is out of print, it is relatively easy to find good used copies through online booksellers. I would urge anyone who has a deep, or even passive, interest in Feynman to read this book, as it really is a great biography of one of the most interesting and important figures in science of the last century.

Review by Ian Bald

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