Mental Arithmetic

Nicholas Wade

  • Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics by James Gleick
    Little, Brown, 532 pp, £18.99, October 1992, ISBN 0 316 90316 7

Richard Feynman was one of the élite group of American and British physicists who developed atomic weapons with the Manhattan project in the Second World War. He flashed back into the public eye in 1965, when he won a share of the Nobel physics prize, and again two decades later when his formidable presence on the committee inquiring into the crash of the Challenger space shuttle forced the cause of the disaster into the open.

Genius is the attempt by a skilled and elegant science writer, James Gleick, to present the facts of Feynman’s life and achievements. Unfortunately, the latter are quite elusive, which is surprising given the mystique that has long surrounded Feynman. His fellow physicists held him in an awe that seems to have transcended his actual achievements, at least to judge from the evidence of this book. That evidence is not easy to weigh, however, because Genius is short on scientific explanation and technical detail.

Feynman burst onto the high-energy physics scene as an enfant terrible, a role he continued to play at all ages. He so impressed his teachers at MIT and Princeton that he was able to transcend all barriers, including the anti-semitism that tainted American universities and industry in the Thirties. ‘Is Feynman Jewish?’ the head of the Princeton physics department wrote in 1939 to the MIT professor who had recommended him as a graduate student. ‘We have no definite rule against Jews but have to keep their proportion in our department reasonably small because of the difficulty in placing them.’

Feynman soon joined the emigration of the best and brightest physicists to General Groves’s boot camp at Los Alamos. His chief duty there was to run the computer division at a time before computers were available. His tools were a roomful of Babbage-style mechanical calculators, later supplemented with primitive punched-card machines. As a principal assistant to Hans Bethe, chief of the theoretical physics division, Feynman also worked on many aspects of the bomb’s physics. Together they developed an important formula, known as the Bethe-Feynman equation, for calculating the efficiency of a nuclear weapon.

The intense and heady business of group bomb-building was accompanied for Feynman by private tragedy, the slow death of his first wife from tuberculosis. On the days Feynman couldn’t visit her in the sanatorium where she was staying in nearby Albuquerque, she wrote him love letters in code designed to baffle the Los Alamos censors. Years later, a rediscovered photo of Arline would move him to speechlessness, and the many women who passed through his life thereafter never assuaged his inner grief.

Feynman left Los Alamos at the age of 27, prematurely wise but riding high on his achievements and the esteem of his peers. ‘He is by all odds the most brilliant young physicist here, and everyone knows this,’ Robert Oppenheimer, the director of the Los Alamos project, wrote to a colleague. Another eminent elder physicist, Eugene Wigner, described him as ‘a second Dirac, only this time human’. The rest of Feynman’s career was spent in academic physics, first at Cornell under Bethe and then at the California Institute of Technology. His principal scientific achievement was a contribution to the theory of quantum electrodynamics. Gleick doesn’t make clear whether Feynman restated the physical ideas of others in his own mathematical formalism, the widely-known Feynman diagrams, or whether he also helped invent the physics of the theory. It was this work for which he received the Nobel Prize together with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga.

Feynman seems to have spent much of his academic life as a prisoner of his own limitations. He had the admirable habit of working out any physics problem from first principles, but this formidable ability was allied with a profound aversion both to reading the physics literature and to listening to his colleagues. The arrogance that everything worth knowing was ascertainable from his own mind cut Feynman off from developments in his own field for long periods at a time. ‘Unlike many of his colleagues, educated scientists in a cultivated European tradition, Feynman did not look at paintings, did not listen to music, did not read books, even scientific books,’ Gleick writes. He couldn’t be bothered to read the scientific literature, even the classic papers of Bohr and Dirac. ‘He refused to let other scientists explain anything to him in detail, often to their immense frustration. He learned anyway.’ The problem was that physics after the Second World War soon developed into a broader body of knowledge than one mind could intuit. Feynman had ‘disregarded so much of the decade’s high-energy physics,’ Gleick notes of his work in the Sixties, that it was a long-term project just to catch up. ‘He tried, as always, to read papers only until he understood the issue and then to work out the problem for himself. “I’ve always taken an attitude that I have only to explain the regularities of nature – I don’t have to explain the methods of my friends,” he told a historian during those years.’

His extraordinary intuition about physics, allied to a prodigious ease with the mathematics, should have provided the basis for a long and productive academic career. Yet Feynman seems often to have been at a loss for a suitable problem to work on. He was a lousy teacher, according to Gleick. His Lectures on Physics intended for undergraduates, and an undoubted succès d’ estime, were in fact so difficult that most courses quickly dropped them. A similar fate befell Feynman’s own classes. One by one the students dropped out, although the audience size remained roughly constant because the faculty was fascinated. His published books, including the Lectures on Physics and the popular Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman!, were assembled by others on the basis of lecture notes or taped conversations. He wrote articles for the scientific literature only with reluctance. He left no cadre of graduate students because he lacked the patience to train any. As Gleick cryptically notes, Feynman ‘developed a stature among physicists that transcended any raw sum of actual contributions to the field’. On what, then, did his reputation among other physicists depend?

Strangely, this is not a subject that Gleick addresses directly, almost as if having decided to write a book entitled Genius he was reluctant to parade any systematic flaws in his subject. Feynman seems to have impressed his peers by personal intellectual dominance. He was a ‘genius’ at mental arithmetic. At lunch at Los Alamos one day he challenged the table to a competition. He would mentally solve in 60 seconds, to within 10 per cent accuracy, any problem that could be stated in ten seconds. He cracked such puzzlers as ‘Find the tenth coefficient in the expansion of the binomial (1+x) to the 20th power,’ and ran out of time only when a friend who had played the game with him previously posed a question that required calculating π to 101 digits. His skill at mental arithmetic, Gleick notes, ‘did much to establish Feynman’s legend’.

So did Feynman himself. He promoted a number of stories designed to show him coming out smarter than anyone else – for example, that he was able to lift atomic secrets by picking the most secure safes at Los Alamos. In fact, he had developed what were essentially magician’s tricks for opening safes whose owners had chosen too obvious a combination number. ‘He surrounded himself with a cloud of myth, and he spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself,’ his colleague Murray Gell-Mann announced at Feynman’s memorial service, firmly flouting the nil nisi bonum convention. Feynman was also, among other things, a jerk. At his father’s funeral, he refused to recite the Kaddish, making his mother break down and cry. He seduced and discarded many women, including the wives of his friends. Presiding over physics colloquia at Caltech, he would reduce visiting speakers to tears. He behaved as if he had never been taught how to.

Why then does Gleick present Feynman as a genius in a book that purports to shed light on the nature of genius? It’s hard to escape the suspicion that Gleick is too good and honest a reporter to suppress the many flaws he found in Feynman’s character, yet hesitates to let them seriously interfere with the paean to intellectual splendour he set out to write.

Feynman’s best and noblest side came out at the very end of his life, when he had survived one kind of cancer and was afflicted with another. In 1986, as a last-minute choice, he was made a member of the committee inquiring into the cause of the crash of the Challenger space shuttle. The chairman, former Secretary of State William Rogers, seemed to place foremost priority on restoring public confidence in Nasa. Feynman considered getting at the truth more important. Leaving the other members of the committee behind in Washington, he dashed round the country, interviewing engineers and from their data piecing together a sombre conclusion: the colder the surrounding temperature at launch, the more likely it became that hot gases could burst past the rubber seals between the sections of the space shuttle’s auxiliary rockets.

The truth, Feynman realised, had to be established on camera. During a break in the proceedings one day, Chairman Rogers was overheard to remark while standing beside Neil Armstrong in the men’s room: ‘Feynman is becoming a real pain in the ass.’ On their return, they found he had prepared a simple demonstration. Dunking a length of the rubber seal in a glass of ice water, Feynman showed that it lost its resiliency. Since the seal had to bounce back to do its job, and since the temperature on the day of launch was that of ice water, Feynman had visibly put his finger on the reason for the catastrophe. As his friend Freeman Dyson later remarked, ‘the public saw with their own eyes how science is done, how a great scientist thinks with his hands, how nature gives a clear answer when a scientist asks her a clear question.’ In a dissenting report, which witheringly contrasted the knowledge of Nasa’s engineers with the actions of its administrators, Feynman wrote simply: ‘For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.’ Then, desperately ill, he returned to California to die.

Despite the handicap of never having met his subject, Gleick has sharply drawn Feynman’s character in all its strengths and weaknesses. Genius is beautifully written, and particularly effective in describing the emotional high points of Feynman’s life – his relationship with Arline, with his parents, and with his mentors John Archibald Wheeler and Hans Bethe. But if Feynman was a genius, Genius fails to prove the case.