Quantum Man

One posthumous measure of a person’s life is how often youimagine his impossible return to deal with some event he never lived toencounter. You picture his reactions, his advice, his sage commentary andhumorous asides.  For instance, Ithink about Mark Twain’s hypothetical take on current events several times aweek. That’s the legacy of Twain’s achievements and character.

By this measure, Ibelieve, famed physicist Richard Feynman still bulks large in the collectivepsyche of a certain segment of mankind. Nearly twenty-five years after hisdeath, those who knew him personally and those who enjoyed only a book-basedfamiliarity with the man are still imagining how he would react to newscientific discoveries, new headlines, and new cultural trends. How we couldhave used his irreverent insights into the Fukushima nuclear disaster, forinstance.

Surely a sign of thisunfading interest is Lawrence Krauss’s sprightly yet majestic new biography, QuantumMan: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, whichdoes a bravura job of reincarnating the unique personality that was RichardFeynman.

As the book’s subtitledictates, Krauss will focus on Feynman’s life in science, assuredly theconsuming passion of Feynman’s existence. We will, insofar as possible, livethrough the intellectual battles and victories that preoccupied Feynman,sharing his fruitful deductions and dead ends, his initial impetuses towarddiscovery, his attainment of heights of visionary insight not given to lesserscientists. To do this, Krauss has to lay out a lot of physics and history ofscience, and he does so with topnotch clarity. Consider, as just one example,his guided tour of Bose-Einstein condensates, those strange materials that format temperatures near absolute zero. The counterintuitive behavior of this kindof strange matter is laid out brilliantly. But more crucially, Krauss makes usunderstand why BEC fascinated Feynman for the deeper secrets the field held. Noris Feynman’s career as an inspirational teacher slighted, with firsthandtestimony from Krauss about the seminal place that the famous FeynmanLectures on Physics holdright up to the present.

And of course, since science is a cooperative enterprise, weget to see how well Feynman played with his peers, such as at various pivotalconferences like the one at Shelter Island in 1947. And because Krauss ishimself a well-known physicist, he can perform reportorial miracles by interviewinghis fellow scientists such as Marty Block, present at a 1956 meeting where aslightly discreditable tale about Feynman originated, and which Krauss nowproves untrue.

But this core focus doesnot mean Krauss will neglect the more “human” elements of his hero. Allthe fabled Feynman eccentricities are present—scientific satori in stripclubs!—even those behaviors such as his womanizing that might reflect badly onthe man. Krauss sees where Feynman sabotaged himself: “…a character traitthat would come back to haunt him: he didn’t want to follow other physicists’leads.” But in general, the human portrait that Krauss sketches is one ofa lively, humorous, generous, loving man who also chanced to be a scientificgenius.

Krauss’s ultimateassessment is that “Feynman’s work contributed to a new understanding ofthe very nature of scientific truth.” This judgment puts me in mindof another quirky genius, Miles Davis, who once boasted that he had personallyrevolutionized jazz three or four times.

I wonder what Feynman would have to say about thatcomparison?

The Speculator

Paul Di Filippo’s column The Speculator appears monthly in the Barnes & Noble Review.  He is the author of several acclaimed novels and story collections, including Fractal Paisleys, Little Doors, Neutrino Drag, and Fuzzy Dice.