Richard Feyn­man A Life in Science

John Grib­bin and Mary Grib­bin Icon Books £9.99 PB

Sky at Night Magazine - - BOOK REVIEWS -

If you’ve never heard of Richard Feyn­man, go read this book. It’s not just a great bi­og­ra­phy of one of the most flam­boy­ant sci­en­tists of the 20th cen­tury, but also a won­der­ful in­tro­duc­tion to quan­tum elec­tro­dy­nam­ics (QED), the the­ory de­scrib­ing the in­ter­ac­tion of light and mat­ter to which Feyn­man was a ma­jor con­trib­u­tor.

Richard (Dick) Feyn­man (1918-1988) be­came known to the gen­eral public only in early 1986, when he was on the pres­i­den­tial com­mis­sion that looked into the fa­tal Chal­lenger Space Shut­tle dis­as­ter. For the eyes of the world, he car­ried out a sim­ple ex­per­i­ment show­ing how rub­ber O-rings be­come brit­tle at low tem­per­a­tures, thereby re­veal­ing that cold weather prior to launch had ul­ti­mately led to the fail­ure of one of the Shut­tle’s O-ring seals, which caused the dis­as­ter. By then, Feyn­man had al­ready helped de­velop the atomic bomb, quan­tum elec­tro­dy­nam­ics and the the­ory of su­per­flu­id­ity. In 1965, he shared the No­bel Prize in Physics with Ju­lian Sch­winger and Shin’ichiro Tomon­aga.

How­ever, among other physi­cists, Feyn­man is mainly re­mem­bered for his in­spir­ing and crys­tal-clear physics lec­tures (still avail­able on the in­ter­net), for his kind­ness and play­ful char­ac­ter and for the sheer joy he ex­pe­ri­enced in ev­ery­thing sci­en­tific. He was not your stereo­type of a fusty physics pro­fes­sor, but a boy­ish ex­plorer with an in­sa­tiable thirst for knowl­edge, a knack for crack­ing safe codes and a love of bongo drums.

Feyn­man wrote two pop­u­lar books about his own life (Surely You’re Jok­ing,

Mr Feyn­man! and What Do You Care What Other Peo­ple Think?), but this bi­og­ra­phy by ac­claimed science writ­ers John and Mary Grib­bin (re­pub­lished to mark the centenary of Feyn­man’s birth) is more com­plete and bet­ter balanced. In al­ter­nate chap­ters, it fo­cuses on episodes in his life and on the science he was in­volved with, but there’s never re­ally a clear distinc­tion be­tween the two. Af­ter all, Richard Feyn­man lived science. Hope­fully, young stu­dents will con­tinue to be in­spired by this re­mark­able physi­cist. Af­ter read­ing this fine bi­og­ra­phy, you’ll agree that we could def­i­nitely use a new Feyn­man.

GOVERT SCHILLING is an astron­omy writer and au­thor of Rip­ples in Space­time, the story be­hind the dis­cov­ery of grav­i­ta­tional waves

Feyn­man (right) re­ceiv­ing his No­bel Prize in Physics in Stock­holm, 1965

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