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

The Art of Logic - Eugenia Cheng ***

This is an important book, though I'm not sure Eugenia Cheng would agree with my logic in saying so. 

Going on the marketing, what we have here is a counter to fake news and dodgy argumentation in the form of mathematical logic. The back cover tells us 'Newspaper headlines and social media use emotions to warp the facts. Politicians and companies master rhetoric to mislead us. What one book could help us make sense of it all?' Admittedly they don't answer their rhetorical question, but I assume the answer is intended to be The Art of Logic. (Did the company behind this book realise it was using rhetoric, though presumably not to mislead us?) 

What we actually have is a combination of a lucid and interesting explanation of the basics of logic with the mathematical equivalent of those books such as Algorithms to Live By that were so popular a couple of years ago. They used the logic of algorithms (differently worded, and, to me, easier to understand), the heart of computer…

Quantum Economics - David Orrell ****

David Orrell's earlier title Economyths is one of my favourite popular science books of all time. Or, perhaps, I should say popular non-science, as Orrell shows just how devastatingly traditional economics uses the tools of science without having a scientific basis. I was, therefore, really looking forward to reading Orrell's new book - until I saw the title. As anyone involved with physics can tell you, there's nothing more irritating than the business of sticking the word 'quantum' onto something to give a pseudo-scientific boost to waffle and woo. Was Orrell doing the same thing? Thankfully, his introduction put my fears aside.

Orrell, a mathematician with a physics background quickly makes it clear that the way he is using quantum theory is not just employing magic words, but involves making use of strong parallels between the nature of quantum objects and concepts like money (more on money in a moment). Yes, this is to some extent a metaphorical use of quantum …

The Ashtray - Errol Morris *****

Wow. When someone suggested I read a book called The Ashtray, written by a documentary film-maker, it didn't strike me that it would be a book that gave deep insights into the history and philosophy of science - while also being a remarkable reading experience. In fact, I almost didn't bother with it, but I'm glad that I did.

The titular ashtray was thrown at the author when he was a grad student - thrown by one of the two best known names in the philosophy of science, Thomas Kuhn, he of The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and the concept of paradigm shifts. Kuhn didn't like the young Errol Morris daring to challenge his ideas and reacted with what some would regard as a less than philosophical reply by hurling a heavy glass ashtray at him.

Part of the reason that reading The Ashtray is a remarkable experience is because it's a book that feels in some ways like watching a documentary. I have to confess I've never seen any of Morris's work, but he uses vis…