Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science

by Lawrence Maxwell Krauss

Hardcover, 2011




New York : W.W. Norton, 2011.


Traces the colorful, turbulent life of the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, from the death of his childhood sweetheart during the Manhattan Project to his rise as an icon in the scientific community.

Media reviews

"Other good books give a feel for this and Feynman’s later accomplishments. But I understood it all better after watching over the shoulder of Krauss the physicist as he worked his way through the Feynman oeuvre — not the stories of fast times in Rio, but the scientific papers.
In popular lore, Feynman often comes off as the wild man of physics, throwing out one crazy idea after another in a frenzied search for truth. In “Quantum Man” — part of the “Great Discoveries” series, for which I have also written a book — we see more of his other side: a master mathematician who could concentrate on a problem for hours and then recast it in a surprising new manner. "

User reviews

LibraryThing member ljhliesl
I'm not going to listen to any subsequent Books Krauss narrates. His enunciation is slipshod and his cadence is off. His pauses are Kirk-Shatner-ly long and deliberate and they occur at unnatural places in the sentences.
LibraryThing member carl.rollyson
Nearly anyone writing about Richard Feynman is bound to seem staid compared with the man himself. The physicist, who won a Nobel Prize for explaining the interaction between electrons and protons in terms of quantum mechanics, was among the century's most celebrated popularizers of scientific thinking. His public talks were transformed into entertaining books like "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" (1985), and he was known for stunningly simple explanations, such as when he explained the disintegration of the space shuttle Challenger using a glass of ice water and one of the rocket booster's defective carbon o-rings. He was also famous for his quirky interests outside of physics—dancing, drawing, bongo playing, a devotion to strip clubs.

Lawrence M. Krauss is a physicist, and "Quantum Man" is part of a series dedicated to lives in science, meaning that much of the book consists of technical explanations that will be challenging for general readers. Mr. Krauss often seems to be addressing physics students. While it is undoubtedly important for readers to grasp Feynman's scientific work, Mr. Krauss rarely uses the sort of crystal-clear language with which Feynman himself used to enlighten listeners. Here, for example, is Feynman's introduction to physics for undergraduate students as recorded in the "The Feynman Lectures on Physics: The New Millennium Edition" (2010):

"If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) that all things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another."

It would be misleading to imply that Feynman's lectures are always as lucid as his one-sentence definition of the atomic hypothesis. But in many cases Mr. Krauss could have simply availed himself of his subject's own words.

Furthermore, even in a biography devoted to a man of science, the man has to emerge in situ, and such is rarely the case in Mr. Krauss's book. Perhaps because so much has already been written by and about Feynman, Mr. Krauss takes his subject's personality for granted. As Feynman himself liked to counsel young scientists: Never rely on the experiments of others. A biographer of Feynman should approach this most unusual genius by doing something fresh.

Mr. Krauss certainly finds room to discuss Feynman's offbeat personality, but he refuses to speculate on how it might have influenced his science. To be sure, Feynman disparaged the notion that his interests outside of science had anything to do with his physics. But such denial should serve to challenge the biographer: Feynman never worried about looking like a fool—as he said countless times to anyone who would listen—and neither should his biographer.

Take Feynman's desire to understand how electrons can behave as particles, as waves and as both, all at the same time—and can even be in two different places at once. Such behavior is not possible according to classical physics, but quantum mechanics suggest that it is. Feynman may have understood such logic—at least in part—because he retained a child-like quality, a sense of play, throughout his life. In a child's world you can be here and elsewhere at the same time—in Kansas and with the Wizard of Oz.

Linkages of these sorts can in fact be forged by reading Mr. Krauss alongside Feynman's own posthumous publications, such as "The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist" (1998) and "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" (1999), in which Feynman discourses about himself and his intellectual adventures. Usually the biographer serves as a kind of check on a subject like Feynman, who, it is presumed, mythologized himself as most autobiographers do. But in this curious case, Feynman has to be consulted to make sense of his biographer's narrative.

James Gleick's "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" (1992) is a more supple treatment of the same basic material. To pick just one example, Mr. Krauss does not mention until page 210 that Feynman's sister, Joan, was also a physicist, while from Mr. Gleick we learn that she served as his lab assistant early in his career. Even so, neither volume quite gives readers the sense that they have penetrated beneath the flamboyant physicist's public pose—if that's what it was. Could Feynman really have been as genial and entertaining a fellow as he seemed? After all, Mr. Gleick notes that many of the justly famous Feynman sayings that seemed so spontaneous in his lectures and interviews were in fact labored over in private.

Yet consulting his selected letters, "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track" (2005), reveals the same amusing, shrewd character, evident on every page. This correspondence demonstrates that Feynman was not only a great monologist but a good teacher and interlocutor. One of the best letters is Feynman's reply to a publisher complaining that physics professors were selling complimentary copies of textbooks sent to them. Feynman argues that the very sending of the books accomplishes the publisher's purpose: advertising his wares. If the re-selling of promotional copies prevented the publisher from making a decent profit, Feynman advised, he should stop sending them. As for himself, Feynman concluded, he returned unsolicited books—but now, come to think of it, the publisher had given him a new idea about what to do with them.

Besides entertaining himself, why would Feynman spend so much time on such trivial correspondence? (The letter to the publisher is by no means atypical.) This question Mr. Krauss, for one, never asks. When he observes behavior in Feynman that he does not understand, he simply calls it "paradoxical." Perhaps the point about Feynman's character that this reveals is that nothing—at least potentially—was beneath his notice. Just as Feynman wanted to explore the constituents of the atom, he wanted to fathom other minds and would happily engage, say, a member of the John Birch Society in a discussion of the U. S. Constitution rather than simply dismiss extremist views—or even ridiculous ones. There is a lesson there about curiosity that his biographers would do well to heed.
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LibraryThing member bragan
Richard Feynman was a brilliant scientist, a genuine character, and, by all accounts, a truly compelling human being, making him a hero for generations of physics students. So it's not too surprising that there have now been a number of books published about his life and his work. This one focuses very strongly on his professional, rather than his personal life, so it's definitely for people who are interested in the science. Krauss, overall, does a pretty good job of describing Feynman's work without using any actual equations, but there is a lot of mathematical thinking involved, and the subject matter can get pretty complicated and abstruse. Personally, I studied physics as an undergrad a couple of decades ago, so I do have some background in the subject, even if I've forgotten a lot of it (and, if I'm honest, never felt like I had an extremely firm grasp of quantum mechanics to begin with). Coming from that perspective, I found some of Krauss' descriptions of Feynman's work made me think, "Oh, nifty, I never really understood that that way before!", while others had me deciding I was just going to have to take his word that it all made sense. But even if I didn't thoroughly understand all the details, the book does do a pretty good job of conveying both the impact of Feynman's work and a sense of how that unique brain of his approached scientific problems.

My one complaint is that it could have used better editing. There were a few typos here and there, a few malformed or half-revised sentences... and maybe someone should have asked Krauss to be a little more sparing with his use of exclamation points. Fortunately, though, there wasn't enough of that to seriously mar the reading experience.
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LibraryThing member nbmars
Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was a colorful, eccentric (some might even say wacky), brilliant thinker who is generally considered one of the two or three leading physicists of the latter half of the twentieth century. His varied interests and delightful sense of humor have put his whimsical memoirs (Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?) in continual demand. Krauss’s new biography touches on, but does not dwell on, Feynman’s eccentricity.

Krauss is a physicist himself and devotes the preponderance of the book to the content of Feynman’s work and its place in modern physics. The book contains no equations, but does utilize several “Feynman diagrams,” a famous, pictographic technique Feynman developed to describe nuclear reactions. However, this book is by no means an easy read, dealing as it does with such issues as virtual particles and vacuum polarization. Most of Feynman’s scientific contributions were densely mathematical and quite abstruse. There is simply no way to explain his significance without delving into some pretty recondite material.

Krauss contends that Feynman’s passion for physics began in high school when his teacher introduced him to the subtleties of the principle of “least action,” that is, in any dynamic system, the difference between the kinetic energy of an object at any instant and its potential energy at the same instant, when calculated at each point along a path and then added up along the path, will be smaller for the actual path the object takes than for any other possible trajectory. Feynman later applied that principle to analyze certain nuclear interactions.

Feynman was fascinated with the fact that there could be mathematically equivalent descriptions of identical physical phenomena. That inspired him to take “old” problems and seek new, equivalent solutions that would be more easily grasped or envisioned. He also spent a great deal of time trying to understand phenomena “from scratch” rather than consulting the existing scientific literature or other physicists. Feynman was slow to publish his ideas, and he sometimes found that other physicists were credited with making discoveries that he had already made but had not yet published.

Nevertheless, Feynman received the noble prize for his work on the theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (often referred to as “QED”), simplifying the mathematical analysis of relativistic effects in quantum phenomena.

Feynman also contributed to physics by designing a new approach to teaching the subject. Unfortunately, most of the students at Cal Tech found his program too challenging (!!), but then, their average S.A.T. scores are barely over 1500. [Think of how that program would have been received at other alma maters!!] The materials of the course have been compiled as The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which is considered a classic in the field. He also made significant contributions to our understanding of cryogenics through his studies of the properties of liquid helium.

He wrote several books directed to the “intelligent layman,” such as The Character of Physical Law. Some of his most futuristic ideas, such as quantum computing and engineering at the level of individual atoms, are only now just coming to fruition. He was somewhat frustrated in his career in that he never developed a seminal concept that could be expressed in a single equation as did Schrödinger or Dirac.

Feynman captured the imagination of America’s “intelligent laymen,” somewhat because of his oversized personality and ability to self-promote. Krauss’s biography is an effort to help those intelligent laymen go beyond Feynman’s personality to get to his actual intellectual contributions. It isn’t easy, and probably requires a little more background in math and physics than most readers will have, but it is worth the effort.
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LibraryThing member nmele
This is not a full biography, but rather one that attempts to explain, for non-physicists, just why Richard Feynman was and is one of the most important scientists of the twentieth century. Krauss succeeds admirably in assessing Feynman's importance and his outsize influence on physical science which has endured for several decades after his death. Krauss argues convincingly that Feynman's importance will continue to grow as our knowledge of physics grows.… (more)
LibraryThing member ajlewis2
The book is, as it says, Feynman's life in science. I found a lot of the physics difficult to understand, but I did get enough to see how great his contribution to science was.
LibraryThing member themulhern
Lawrence Krauss is a bit of a malaprop. I'm certainly interested in the subject of the book, but he got into the principle of least time at just the wrong level.
LibraryThing member fpagan
Not so much another biography of the man (1918-1988) who "has reached the status of a mythic hero to most physicists now alive on the planet" (p xvii) as an accounting of Feynman's contributions to theoretical physics. But I can't resist repeating Feynman's comment quoted on p 165, pertaining to his leaving Cornell for Caltech: "The theoretical broadening which comes from having many humanities subjects on campus is offset by the general dopiness of the people who study these things."… (more)



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