Quantum Man by Lawrence Krauss

While I’ve got a few more review copies backlogged around here, the next book review post is one that I actually paid for myself, Lawrence Krauss’s Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science, part of Norton’s Great Discoveries series of scientific biographies. I’m a fan of the series– past entries reviewed here include Richard Reeves’s biography of Rutherford, Rebecca Goldstein’s biography of Goedel, and David Foster Wallace on Cantor’s work on infinity (which is less of a biography than the others). I’m not a huge reader of biographies, but I’ve liked all the books from this series that I’ve read, and I generally like Krauss.

You might very reasonably ask why the world needs another Feynman biography when there’s James Gleick’s Genius running around. For one thing, this book is a whole lot shorter. More importantly, though, this is more of a scientific biography of Feynman, in the manner of Abraham Pais’s Subtle Is the Lord…. Krauss says right out that one of the main attractions of the project, for him, was the chance to go back and read all of Feynman’s papers, to trace the development of his physics.

That changes the emphasis of the book quite a bit. It’s not that Feynman’s personal life is entirely absent– he was too colorful a character for any writer to do that– but it’s pushed to the background a bit, in favor of talking about what he did in physics, and how that shaped the evolution of the discipline. Krauss makes a very compelling case that even leaving aside the outsized mythology that grew up around him (which Feynman helped cultivate), Feynman was a seminal figure in 20th century physics.

The book covers the expected territory– his early years at MIT, his thesis on path integrals in quantum physics, his work on the Manhattan Project, and the eventual development of QED. Most of this material is present in Genius as well, but there it gets almost buried under more traditional biographical material. Krauss puts the focus squarely on the physics, and in so doing makes the connections between Feynman’s many interests clear. Things like condensed matter and quantum gravity turn out to have more in common with path integrals than you might’ve thought, and the connections are brought out very nicely.

It also helps explain some things that I always found a little puzzling, chiefly the fact that Feynman’s most famous contribution, his graphical formulation of QED was made in the late 1940′s, while he lived into the 1980′s. And yet, nobody talks much about what he was doing in the last thirty-odd years of his life. Krauss goes into that a bit, and explains the apparent gap as the result of a couple of elements of Feynman’s personality: first, that he disliked the idea of working on the same things as everybody else, and thus sought out problems that were off the beaten track, as it were. Beyond that, he disliked the process of writing ideas up for publication, and didn’t particularly crave further recognition, so he often let other people publish and get credit for things he had worked out on his own, and not shared with others.

(There’s also a reasonable amount of discussion of whether these represent admirable traits or character flaws– that is, whether Feynman set physics back by not applying his genius to mainstream problems, or if he did us all a favor by illuminating new areas. The final judgement seems to be “Enh. It’s just one of those things, you know?”)

So, as a scientific biography, how does this compare to Subtle Is the Lord…? Beyond being about a completely different person, it’s also a very different sort of book. Unlike Pais’s magnum opus, this doesn’t have any equations at all, or at least has few enough of them that they didn’t make an impression on me. It’s also much more polished on the writing front, as you would expect given Krauss’s distinguished career as an author of pop-science books.

Like all the other books in the series that I’ve read, this is a quick read, and very engaging. It doesn’t offer any breathtaking factual revelations, but the angle it takes on what is already known is very different, and provides some new insight into one of the most fascinating physicists of the modern era. If you’re interested in modern physics and how it got to where it is, it’s well worth reading.

Comments

  1. #1 William Hyde
    May 9, 2011

    At the risk of telling you something you may already know, you might want to take a look at C. P. Snow’s “Variety of Men”. Snow knew Rutherford at Cambridge before he switched careers, and he is one of the men profiled (Hardy is another). As far as I can tell Snow didn’t base any characters directly on Rutherford (Austen Davidson is Hardy). Possibly it wouldn’t have been believable.

    William Hyde

  2. #2 FB
    May 10, 2011

    There’s already at least one scientific biography of Feynman, The Beat of a Different Drum by Jagdish Mehra. It wasn’t too well written on the personal side, though; mostly a dry recap of other biographies and the autobiographies.

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