From the Publisher
“An accessible portrait of a brilliant man.” —Stephen Hawking, author of A Brief History of Time
“A very unusual memoir of a very unusual author’s revealing encounters with a very human legend.” —The Dallas Morning News
“This is a sweetly entertaining book about the weird, but engaging, world of physics. . . . Young scientists will find solace and perhaps inspiration here.” —American Scientist
“Mlodinow’s tribute to the man is set against an amusing, nicely drawn backdrop of campus life, and fleshed out with a very readable account of string theory, which developed into the most promising breakthrough of the century in theoretical physics.” —The Independent (London)
“Mlodinow’s accessible style manages to convey Feynman’s cantankerous appeal as well as some of the weirdness of theoretical physics without overtaxing lay readers, while his deft, funny, novelistic portraits of its practitioners . . . bring this seemingly gray sub-culture to vivid life.” —Publishers Weekly
“An exhilarating book . . . one that reflects the radiance of its subject and so warms as it instructs.” —David Berlinski, author of One, Two, Three: Absolutely Elementary Mathematics
“Mlodinow thinks in equations but explains in anecdote, simile, and occasional bursts of neon. . . . The results are mind-bending.” —Fortune
The late Nobel laureate Richard Feynman has been virtually canonized as the People's Physicist-an earthy, bongo-playing free spirit who delighted in puncturing the pomposity of the establishment. In this memoir, by ex-physicist and Star Trek writer Mlodinow, of a stint as a post-doctoral colleague of Feynman's at Caltech, the aging physicist still cracks wise, crashes parties, works on his physics at a strip joint and needles stuffed-shirt academics. Mlodinow was something of a Feynman-esque character himself-he liked to smoke pot with the garbage man next door and was working on a screenplay-so he turned to the older scientist for life lessons. And that's where this otherwise engaging book goes wrong, because, truth be told, Feynman was at his best only when talking about physics. Mlodinow taped many of their conversations, and transcribes them at length here, to the book's detriment. Feynman holds forth on the creative process, art and modern novels ("The few that I've looked at, I can't stand them"), but as far as insights go, platitudes like "Remember, it's supposed to be fun" (a thought inspired by the titular rainbow) are about as good as it gets. Fortunately, Mlodinow's accessible style manages to convey Feynman's cantankerous appeal as well as some of the weirdness of theoretical physics without overtaxing lay readers, while his deft, funny, novelistic portraits of its practitioners, like the (as portrayed here) toweringly pretentious and touchingly human Nobelist Murray Gell-Mann, bring this seemingly gray sub-culture to vivid life. (May) Copyright 2003 Reed Business Information.
A former Caltech physicist pulls no punches as he recalls his encounters with Richard Feynman. Like many scientists of his generation, Mlodinow (Euclid’s Window, 2001) was attracted to physics by Nobelist Feynman’s published lectures on quantum theory. In 1981, this newly minted Ph.D. found himself in an office just down the hall from his idol. Caltech was then, as now, one of the major centers of physics research: Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Mann was in the office next door, and another faculty member at the time was John Schwarz, the leading advocate of a then-disreputable notion that would eventually blossom into string theory. Uncertain what he was doing in such high-powered company, Mlodinow had long talks with Feynman about every aspect of science and life. The physicist permitted his young colleague to tape some of their conversations, and this account is based in part on transcripts of those tapes, interspersed with Mlodinow's reminiscences about life at Caltech. Neither the author nor his famous not-quite-mentor were comfortable in academic culture. Feynman was a notorious nonconformist, often working on physics in strip clubs, or eating lunch at the student union instead of at the elegant faculty club. Mlodinow spent much of his free time smoking dope and watching old gangster movies with working-class friends. He dabbled in fiction writing, a pastime most of his scientific colleagues regarded with suspicion if not outright scorn. Feynman did what he could to assuage Mlodinow's trepidations about a physics career, offering insights into scientific creativity and the nature of physics, as well as more general topics. Already diagnosed with the cancer that would eventually killhim, Feynman had arrived at unconventional conclusions about the world at large. Inspiring and very readable portrait of a free-spirited genius.
Read an Excerpt
IN A GRAY CEMENT building on the olive tree-lined Caltech campus on California Boulevard in Pasadena, a thin man with longish hair steps into his modest office. Some students, on this planet less than one-third as long as the professor has been, stop in the hallway and stare. No one would say a word if he didn't come to the office this day, but nothing could keep him away, especially not the surgery, the effects of which he would no longer allow to ruin his routine.
Outside, bright sun bathes the palm trees, but it is no longer the withering sun of the summer. The hills rise, brown now giving way to green, their vegetation reborn with the coming of the more hospitable winter season. The professor might have wondered how many more cycles of green and brown he would live to witness; he knew he had a disease that would kill him. He loved life, but he believed in natural law, and not in miracles. When his rare form of cancer was first discovered in the summer of 1978, he had searched the literature. Five-year survival rates were generally reported to be less than 10 percent. Virtually no one survived ten years. He was into his fourth.
Some forty years earlier, when he was almost as young as the students currently around him, he had sent a series of papers to the prestigious journal Physical Review. The papers contained odd little diagrams, which constituted a new way of thinking about quantum mechanics, less formal than the standard mathematical language of physics. Though few seemed convinced of his new approach, he thought how amusing it would be if some day that journal would be full of his diagrams. As it turned out, the method they reflected proved to be not only correct and useful, but revolutionary, and on that day late in 1981, in the Physical Review, his diagrams were ubiquitous. They were about as famous as diagrams get. And he was about as famous, at least in the world of science, as scientists get.
The professor has been working on a new problem the past couple of years. The method he worked out in his student days had been wildly successful when applied to a theory called quantum electrodynamics. That is the theory of the electromagnetic force that governs, among other things, the behavior of the electrons that orbit the nucleus of the atom. These electrons impart to atoms their chemical properties and their spectral properties (the colors of light they emit and absorb). Hence the study of these particular electrons and their behavior is called atomic physics. But since the professor's student days physicists had made great progress in a new field called nuclear physics. Nuclear physics looks beyond the electronic structure of atoms to the potentially much more violent interactions of the protons and neutrons within the nucleus. Though protons are subject to the same electromagnetic force that governs the behavior of the atomic electrons, these interactions are dominated by a new force, a force that is far stronger than the electromagnetic force. It is called, fittingly, the U strong force."
To describe the strong force a grand new theory had been invented. The new theory had some mathematical similarities to quantum electrodynamics, and it was given a name that reflected these similarities quantum chromodynamics (despite the root, chromo, it has nothing to do with color as we know it). In principle quantum chromodynamics provided a precise quantitative description of protons, neutrons, and related particles and how they interacthow they might bind to each other, or behave in collisions. But how do we extract descriptions of these processes from the theory? The professor's approach applied in principle to this new theory but practical complications arose. Though quantum chromodynamics had had certain triumphs, for many situations neither the professor nor anyone else knew how to use his diagramsor any other methodto extract accurate numerical predictions from the theory. Theorists couldn't even calculate the mass of the protona very basic quantity that had long ago been accurately measured by the experimentalists.
The professor thinks, perhaps, that with the months or years he has left on earth he'll play around with the problem of quantum chromodynamics, considered one of the most important of its day. To create the energy and will he needs for his effort, he tells himself that everyone else who had for so many years unsuccessfully attacked this problem lacked certain qualities that he possesses. What they are he, Richard Feynman, isn't sure: an oddball approach, perhaps. Whatever those qualities are, they had served him wellhe had one Nobel Prize, but might arguably have deserved two or three when you considered all the wide-ranging and important breakthroughs he had made in his career.
Meanwhile, in 1980, several hundred miles north in Berkeley, a much younger man had sent off a couple papers with his own new approach to solving some of the old mysteries of atomic physics. His method offered answers to some difficult problems, but there was a catch. The world he explored in his imagination was one in which space has an infinite number of dimensions. It is a world with not just up/down, right/left, and forward/backward, but also a countless array of other directions. Could you really say anything useful about our three-dimensional existence by studying a universe like that? And could the method be extended to other areas of study, such as the more modern field of nuclear physics? It would turn out that it is promising enough that this student received a beginning faculty appointment at Caltech, and an office down the hall from Feynman.
The night after receiving that offer of employment, I remembered lying in my bed half my life earlier, wondering what it would belike the next day, my first day in junior high. More than anything else, as I recall, I was worried about gym and showering in front of all those other boys. What I was really worried about was ridicule. I would be exposed, too, at Caltech. In Pasadena there would be no faculty advisor, no mentor, just my own answers to the hardest problems the best physicists could think of to me, a physicist who didn't produce brilliant ideas was one of the living dead. At a place like Caltech, he would also be shunned, and soon unemployed.
Did I have it or didn't I? Or was I asking the wrong question? I started talking to the thin, dying professor with long hair in an office down the hall. What the old man told me is the subject of this book.