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Quantum Man: Richard Feynman

Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s life in science, by Lawrence M Krauss. W. W. Norton, London (2011), ISBN 978-0-393-06471-1.

This book is remarkable for three reasons.  The first is the brilliance, character and originality of the physicist and Nobel laureate Richard Feynman.  Second is the true star of the book; the incredible contribution made by Feynman to modern physics, and how we understand the world around us through this science.  Third is Krauss himself, who brings his own intimate appreciation of the physics, and how it is created, to this book.

Krauss has an easy style and language.  Together these breathe life into perhaps the most intimidating of all intellectual disciplines – the science of the quantum world.  Any of these reasons would make this book worth reading – the combination, make this a non-fiction read not to be missed.

Krauss brings to life Feynman’s unique understanding of quantum electrodynamics (QED), for which he was awarded a Nobel Prize in physics, superfluidity and quantum gravity.  At the same time he sketches those qualities that made Feynman a most unique and curious character.

Feynman developed his own understanding about all these fields by tackling any problem from his own unique perspective.  He then demanded that the theoretical models that he, and others, developed were only ever of merit if they could be checked against the solid reality of experimental numbers.  He moved into many fields that piqued his interest, “trying never to take the same path twice.”

We also learn of Feynman’s incredible zest for life: affairs, marriages, working trips to Brazil, samba bands, topless bars and amongst all of this is his humour and love of physics.  We feel his anguish at losing his young wife to tuberculosis and the aftermath of being part of the Manhattan project team that created the nuclear bomb.  Strange as this juxtaposition may seem Krauss manages to achieve a balance that is a truthful homage to Feynman.

For more ‘detailed’ versions of Feynman’s personal adventures I would recommend also reading Feynman’s two autobiographical tales, ‘Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman’ and ‘What do you care what other people think?’ as well as James Gleick’s Genius: Richard Feynman and modern physics.  Although Krauss states his admiration for Feynman he at no point papers over the flaws that made Feynman the charismatic and intense person he was.

I would recommend this to anyone who wants to truly appreciate how scientists go about creating great science.  Looking at the personalities and interactions, the intellectual grunt and moments of insight.  Krauss delights in these, eschewing the “after-the-fact logical exposition of science” or gushing “gee whiz” as science is quite often presented.  It is a book that presents and respects the science.  It is an elegant example of science communication.  A fitting credit to Feynman – one of the best in communicating science.

A version of this book review was originally published on the website of  Embiggen Books.

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