Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  
Review by Ian Bald

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…