Friday, September 2, 2011

Feynman (Non-fiction Books)

Quantum Man:
He was brilliant, funny, confident, and charismatic in the extreme…his energy and enthusiasm were addictive.
His joy was solving problems, and solving them himself.
Solving problems was not a choice for Feynman, it was a necessity…Feynman couldn’t have stopped if he tried, and he didn’t try because he was so good at it.
Six Easy Pieces:
The Feynman style can best be described as a mixture of reverence and disrespect for received wisdom. His special talent was to approach essentially mainstream topics in an idiosyncratic way.
Despite reading a lot—over a hundred books this year—of science fiction, I often find myself hungry for more science. To fulfill that need, this August I read Six Easy Pieces by Richard Feynman and Quantum Man, which is about Feynman. Both were enjoyable and expanded my knowledge of physics. Just to give some context, I need to say that the only formal education I have in physics is one undergraduate astronomy course: long live the Doppler Shift. Richard Feynman was an amazing and prolific scientist, whose contributions included the Feynman Diagram and Path Integral formulation. Among his many achievements, he worked on the atomic bomb, won a Nobel Prize, and helped investigate the Challenger Disaster. Reading these books was a major intellectual workout for me.

Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science by Lawrence M. Krauss was released earlier this year. While a biography, the book focuses almost exclusively on the scientific side of Feynman’s life, with only a dusting of brief paragraphs about his personal life. The book was still very appealing to me. Not only does the book describe Feynman’s scientific accomplishments, but it also describes some of the accomplishments of the scientists who influenced him and the accomplishments of those he in turn influenced. This book is as much—if not more—about science as it is about a man. Yet, Krauss does manage to paint an interesting picture of Feynman, with all his idiosyncrasies and his brilliance. I especially enjoyed learning how his mind worked, how he looked at the world and scientific problems. The book did include a few poignant moments. One of which is how Feynman became depressed after the world had the atomic bomb.

Six Easy Pieces is an edited version of six lectures about physics that Feynman gave at Caltech in the early 1960’s. First published in 1963, the book is in its fourth printing, with the latest edition coming out this year. The book is so popular that our own library often has a waiting list for a copy. Feynman’s personality comes through in the book. The tone is conversational. When he describes the conservation of energy, he uses the example of Dennis the Menace and his wooden blocks. This is definitely not a textbook on physics: the writing has varying levels of difficulty, and the subjects are far ranging. Sometimes I had “aha” moments when I felt that I definitely understood something. Other times, I was lost, like when I was looking at a table of elementary particles. While the book was very slow reading, I enjoyed it very much.

Reading about science soothes me. Perhaps it is the feeling that there is some order in the universe. One of my goals is to read more science books.

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