Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynmanby James Gleick
From the author of the national bestseller Chaos comes an outstanding biography of one of the most dazzling and flamboyant scientists of the 20th century that "not only paints a highly attractive portrait of Feynman but also . . . makes for a stimulating adventure in the annals of science" (The New York Times). 16 pages of photos.See more details below
From the author of the national bestseller Chaos comes an outstanding biography of one of the most dazzling and flamboyant scientists of the 20th century that "not only paints a highly attractive portrait of Feynman but also . . . makes for a stimulating adventure in the annals of science" (The New York Times). 16 pages of photos.
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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- 1st Vintage Books ed
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- 5.16(w) x 8.00(h) x 1.14(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Life and Science of Richard Feynman
By James Gleick
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1992 James Gleick
All rights reserved.
Eventually the art went out of radio tinkering. Children forgot the pleasures of opening the cabinets and eviscerating their parents' old Kadettes and Clubs. Solid electronic blocks replaced the radio set's messy innards—so where once you could learn by tugging at soldered wires and staring into the orange glow of the vacuum tubes, eventually nothing remained but featureless ready-made chips, the old circuits compressed a thousandfold or more. The transistor, a microscopic quirk in a sliver of silicon, supplanted the reliably breakable tube, and so the world lost a well-used path into science.
In the 1920s, a generation before the coming of solid-state electronics, one could look at the circuits and see how the electron stream flowed. Radios had valves, as though electricity were a fluid to be diverted by plumbing. With the click of the knob came a significant hiss and hum, just at the edge of audibility. Later it was said that physicists could be divided into two groups, those who had played with chemistry sets and those who had played with radios. Chemistry sets had their appeal, but a boy like Richard Feynman, loving diagrams and maps, could see that the radio was its own map, a diagram of itself. Its parts expressed their function, once he learned to break the code of wires, resistors, crystals, and capacitors. He assembled a crystal set, attached oversized earphones from a rummage sale, and listened under the bedcovers until he fell asleep. Sometimes his parents would tiptoe in and take the earphones off their sleeping boy. When atmospheric conditions were right, his radio could pull in signals from far away—Schenectady in upstate New York or even station WACO from Waco, Texas. The mechanism responded to the touch. To change channels he slid a contact across a wire coil. Still, the radio was not like a watch, with gears and wheels. It was already one step removed from the mechanical world. Its essential magic was invisible after all. The crystal, motionless, captured waves of electromagnetic radiation from the ether.
Yet there was no ether—no substance bearing these waves. If scientists wished to imagine radio waves propagating with the unmistakable undulating rhythm of waves in a pond, they nonetheless had to face the fact that these waves were not in anything. Not in the era of relativity: Einstein was showing that if an ether existed it would have to be motionless with respect to any and all observers—though they themselves moved in different directions. This was impossible. "It seems that the aether has betaken itself to the land of the shades in a final effort to elude the inquisitive search of the physicist!" the mathematician Hermann Weyl wrote in 1918, the year Feynman was born. Through what medium, then, were radio waves sweeping in their brief journey from the aerials of downtown New York to Feynman's second-story bedroom in a small frame house on the city's outskirts? Whatever it was, the radio wave was only one of the many sorts of oscillations disturbing every region of space. Waves of light, physically identical to radio waves but many times shorter, crisscrossing hectically; infrared waves, perceptible as heat on the skin; the ominously named X rays; the ultra-high-frequency gamma rays, with wavelengths smaller than atoms—all these were just different guises of one phenomenon, electromagnetic radiation. Already space was an electromagnetic babel, and human-built transmitters were making it busier still. Fragmented voices, accidental clicks, slide-whistle drones: strange noises passed through one another, more waves in a well-corrugated waviness. These waves coexisted not in the ether but in a rather more abstract medium, the precise nature of which was posing difficulties for physicists. They could not imagine what it was—a problem that was only mildly allayed by the fact that they had a name for it, the electromagnetic field, or just the field. The field was merely a continuous surface or volume across which some quantity varied. It had no substance, yet it shook; it vibrated. Physicists were discovering that the vibrations sometimes behaved like particles, but this just complicated the issue. If they were particles, they were nonetheless particles with an undeniably wavelike quality that enabled boys like Feynman to tune in to certain desirable wavelengths, the ones carrying "The Shadow" and "Uncle Don" and advertisements for Eno Effervescent Salts. The scientific difficulties were obscure, known only to a handful of scientists more likely to speak German than English. The essence of the mystery, however, was clear to amateurs who read about Einstein in the newspapers and pondered the simple magic of a radio set.
No wonder so many future physicists started as radio tinkerers, and no wonder, before physicist became a commonplace word, so many of them grew up thinking they might become electrical engineers, professionals known to earn a good wage. Richard, called Ritty by his friends, seemed to be heading single-mindedly in that direction. He accumulated tube sets and an old storage battery from around the neighborhood. He assembled transformers, switches, and coils. A coil salvaged from a Ford automobile made showy sparks that burned brown-black holes in newspaper. When he found a leftover rheostat, he pushed 110-volt electricity through it until it overloaded and burned. He held the stinking, smoking thing outside his second-floor window, as the ashes drifted down to the grassy rear yard. This was standard emergency procedure. When a pungent odor drifted in downstairs during his mother's bridge game, it meant that Ritty was dangling his metal wastebasket out the window, waiting for the flames to die out after an abortive experiment with shoe polish—he meant to melt it and use the liquid as black paint for his "lab," a wooden crate roughly the size of a refrigerator, standing in his bedroom upstairs in the rear of the house. Screwed into the crate were various electrical switches and lights that Ritty had wired, in series and in parallel. His sister, Joan, nine years younger, served eagerly as a four-cents-a-week lab assistant. Her duties included putting a finger into a spark gap and enduring a mild shock for the entertainment of Ritty's friends.
It had already occurred to psychologists that children are innate scientists, probing, puttering, experimenting with the possible and impossible in a confused local universe. Children and scientists share an outlook on life. If I do this, what will happen? is both the motto of the child at play and the defining refrain of the physical scientist. Every child is observer, analyst, and taxonomist, building a mental life through a sequence of intellectual revolutions, constructing theories and promptly shedding them when they no longer fit. The unfamiliar and the strange—these are the domain of all children and scientists.
None of which could fully account for the presence of laboratory, rheostat, and lab assistant—tokens of a certain vivid cultural stereotype. Richard Feynman was relentless in filling his bedroom with the trappings and systems of organized science.
Neither Country nor City
Charmed lives were led by the children of Far Rockaway, a village that amounted to a few hundred acres of frame houses and brick apartment blocks on a spit of beach floating off Long Island's south shore. The neighborhood had been agglomerated into the political entity of New York City as one of the more than sixty towns and neighborhoods that merged as the borough of Queens in 1898. The city was investing generously in these neighborhoods, spending tens of millions of dollars on the laying of water mains, sewers, and roadways and the construction of grand public buildings. Still, in the first part of the twentieth century, before the IND subway line reached out across the marshes of Jamaica Bay, the city seemed a faraway place. Commuters took the Long Island Rail Road. Beyond Far Rockaway's eastern border lay the small towns of Nassau County, Long Island. To the northwest, across marshy tongues of ocean called Mott Basin and Hassock Channel, lay a flat expanse that later became Idlewild Airport and then Kennedy International Airport. On foot or on their bicycles, Far Rockaway's children had free run of a self-contained world: ivy-covered houses, fields, and vacant lots. No one has yet isolated the circumstances that help a child grow whole and independent, but they were present. At some point in a town's evolution, houses and fences grow dense enough to form a connected barrier. When that critical point is reached, movement is mostly restricted to public streets. In Far Rockaway boys and girls still percolated through the neighborhood and established their own paths through backyards and empty lots behind the houses and streets. They were autonomous and enterprising in play, roaming far from their parents' immediate oversight, riding their bicycles without accounting for their whereabouts. They could wander through fields on the way to the shore, and then they could rent boats and row them up and down the protected inlets. Richard walked to the library and, sitting on the stone steps, watched people go by in all directions. Distant as New York seemed, he felt bound enough to the great city to look down on the outsiders living a few blocks away, in Cedarhurst, Long Island. But he also knew that his neighborhood was a place apart.
"When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world," wrote another New Yorker, the critic Alfred Kazin; he grew up in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood a little poorer and almost as remote, another district of Jewish immigrants and children of immigrants occupying that unusual boundary between the urban and the rural. "There were always raw patches of unused city land all around us filled with 'monument works' where they cut and stored tombstones, as there were still on our street farmhouses and the remains of old cobbled driveways," he wrote—"most of it dead land, neither country nor city.... That was the way to the ocean we always took summer evenings—through silent streets of old broken houses whose smoky red Victorian fronts looked as if the paint had clotted like blood and had then been mixed with soot—past infinite weedy lots...."
For Ritty Feynman the beach was best of all—the long southern strand stretching almost unbroken to the far east end of Long Island, framed by its boardwalk and summer hotels, cottages and thousands of private lockers. Far Rockaway was a summer resort with beach clubs for people from the city: the Ostend Baths, Roche's (for a long time Richard thought this was named after the insect), the Arnold. There were wooden pavilions and changing rooms for rent by the season, with shiny locks and keys. For the local children, though, the beach served its purpose the year round. They splashed in the light surf, attenuated by a long breakwater pale beneath the waves. At the height of the summer's crowds the pink and green of bathing suits dotted the sand like gumdrops. It was his favorite place. He usually rode his bicycle the four thousand feet from his house (a distance that expanded in his later memory to two miles). He went with friends or alone. The sky was larger there than anywhere else in the city's confines; the ocean tempted his imagination as it does any child's. All those waves, all that space, the boats crawling like apparitions along the horizon toward New York Harbor, Europe and Africa lying far beyond, at the end of a long uninterrupted vector curving downward below the sky. It sometimes seemed that the things near the sea were the only things that were any good.
The dome of the sky stretched upward. The arcs of the sun and moon crossed directly ahead, rising and falling with the season. He could splash his heels in the surf and recognize a line that formed the tripartite boundary between earth, sea, and air. At night he would take his flashlight. For teenagers the beach was a site for social mixing between boys and girls; he did his best, though he sometimes felt gawky. He often swam. When he was forty-three, setting out nearly everything he knew about physics in the historic two-year undergraduate course that became The Feynman Lectures on Physics, he stood before a hall of freshmen and tried to place them mentally at the beach. "If we stand on the shore and look at the sea," he said, "we see the water, the waves breaking, the foam, the sloshing motion of the water, the sound, the air, the winds and the clouds, the sun and the blue sky, and light; there is sand and there are rocks of various hardness and permanence, color and texture. There are animals and seaweed, hunger and disease, and the observer on the beach; there may even be happiness and thought." Nature was elemental there, though for Feynman elemental did not mean simple or austere. The questions he considered within the physicist's purview—the fundamental questions—arose on the beach. "Is the sand other than the rocks? That is, is the sand perhaps nothing but a great number of very tiny stones? Is the moon a great rock? If we understood rocks, would we also understand the sand and the moon? Is the wind a sloshing of the air analogous to the sloshing motion of the water in the sea?"
The great European migration to America was ending. For the Jews of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Germany, for the Irish and the Italians, the first-hand and first-generation memories would now recede. The outer neighborhoods of New York flourished in the generations before World War II and then began to wane. In Far Rockaway not much changed visibly in the sixty-nine years of Feynman's lifetime. When Feynman returned on a visit with his children a few years before his death, everything seemed shrunken and forlorn, the fields and vacant lots were gone, but it was the same beach with its boardwalk, the same high school, the same house he had wired for radio broadcasts—the house now divided, to accommodate a tenant, and not nearly so spacious as in memory. He did not ring the bell. The village's main street, Central Avenue, seemed shabby and narrow. The population had become largely Orthodox Jewish, and Feynman was vaguely disturbed to see so many yarmulkes, or, as he actually said, "those little hats that they wear"—meaning: I don't care what things are called. And casually repudiating the culture that hung as thick in the air of his childhood as the smoke of the city or the salt of the ocean.
The Judaism of Far Rockaway took in a liberal range of styles of belief, almost broad enough to encompass atheists like Richard's father, Melville. It was a mostly Reform Judaism, letting go the absolutist and fundamental traditions for the sake of a gentle, ethical humanism, well suited for fresh Americans pinning their hopes on children who might make their way into the mainstream of the New World. Some households barely honored the Sabbath. In some, like Feynman's, Yiddish would have been a foreign language. The Feynmans belonged to the neighborhood temple. Richard went to Sunday school for a while and belonged to a Shaaray Tefila youth group that organized after-school activities. Religion remained part of the village's ethical core. Families like the Feynmans, in neighborhoods all around greater New York City, produced in the first half of the twentieth century an outpouring of men and women who became successful in many fields, but especially science. These hundred-odd square miles of the planet's surface were disproportionately fertile in the spawning of Nobel laureates. Many families, as Jews, were embedded in a culture that prized learning and discourse; immigrants and the children of immigrants worked to fulfill themselves through their own children, who had to be sharply conscious of their parents' hopes and sacrifices. They shared a sense that science, as a profession, rewarded merit. In fact, the best colleges and universities continued to raise barriers against Jewish applicants, and their science faculties remained determinedly Protestant, until after World War II. Science nevertheless offered the appearance of a level landscape, where the rules seemed mathematical and clear, free from the hidden variables of taste and class.
As a town Far Rockaway had a center that even Cedarhurst lacked. When Richard's mother, Lucille, walking down to Central Avenue, headed for stores like Nebenzahl's and Stark's, she appreciated the centralization. She knew her children's teachers personally, helped get the school lunchroom painted, and joined her neighbors in collecting the set of red glassware given out as a promotion by a local movie theater. This village looked inward as carefully as the shtetl that remained in some memories. There was a consistency of belief and behavior. To be honest, to be principled, to study, to save money against hard times—the rules were not so much taught as assumed. Everyone worked hard. There was no sense of poverty—certainly not in Feynman's family, though later he realized that two families had shared one house because neither could get by alone. Nor in his friend Leonard Mautner's, even after the father had died and an older brother was holding the family together by selling eggs and butter from house to house. "That was the way the world was," Feynman said long afterward. "But now I realize that everybody was struggling like mad. Everybody was struggling and it didn't seem like a struggle." For children, life in such neighborhoods brought a rare childhood combination of freedom and moral rigor. It seemed to Feynman that morality was made easy. He was allowed to surrender to a natural inclination to be honest. It was the downhill course.
Excerpted from Genius by James Gleick. Copyright © 1992 James Gleick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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