Richard Feynman A Life in Science
John Gribbin and Mary Gribbin Icon Books £9.99 PB
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