Ed Regis

  • The Beat of a Different Drum: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by Jagdish Mehra
    Oxford, 630 pp, £25.00, March 1994, ISBN 0 19 853948 7

Richard Feynman was the world’s number-one physicist (after Einstein), a well-known genius, a self-described ‘curious character’ who was involved in some of the formative events of 20th-century science: the Manhattan Project, quantum mechanics, the birth of quantum electrodynamics. Feynman’s mind roamed over every conceivable branch of Science. He ought to be a perfect subject for any biographer. In 1959, while ‘on sabbatical’, he studied molecular biology and even here did work that was later cited by researchers in the field, including Francis Crick. Feynman made advances in subjects ranging from nanotechnology to quark jets to the fundamental limits of computation. He seemed to know everything and everyone in science. He was well-loved by most of those who knew him, all of whom had Feynman stories to tell.

Feynman seemed to have no internal censor: he said what he thought and did what he pleased, the consequences be damned. He was independent-minded to the point of contrariness; in fact he was famously, even ostentatiously contrary. ‘Sometimes he did things in a certain way just because nobody did them that way,’ a colleague said. When Caltech invited him to lecture on freshman physics, Feynman asked: ‘Do you know if there has ever been a great physicist who lectured on freshman physics?’ The answer was: ‘I don’t know, but I don’t think so.’ Feynman said: ‘I’ll do it!’

He loathed formality and ceremony, accepting the Nobel Prize only after being convinced that turning it down would be a lot more trouble. But he refuted honorary degrees, once telling the hopeful profferer (in this case, the President of the University of Chicago) that ‘It is like giving an “honorary electrician’s licence”.’ He was as politically incorrect as they come, often indulging his fondness for (in Jagdish Mehra’s words) ‘watching beautiful young girls’ or (in Feynman’s own phrase) ‘enjoying the scenery’. In later life he worked at physics problems on the paper place mats of Gianonni’s topless bar, in Pasadena, where he went five or six times a week, and in support of which he ended up testifying in court. ‘I like this place, and I’d like to see it continue,’ he said. ‘I don’t see anything wrong with topless dancing.’ He was, as Freeman Dyson put it, ‘all genius and all buffoon’.

All that’s on the one hand. Lurking on the other hand, however, are a number of dangers for the biographer. Feynman devoted his life to physics: ‘Physics is my only hobby,’ he once said. ‘It is my work and entertainment. I think about it all the time.’ But it was extremely tough physics that he thought about; some of it was too tough even for Feynman: for all his work on the problems of superconductivity and fluid turbulence, he never made much headway. In the areas where his contributions were greatest, much of his work is so abstract and technical as to require great narrative skills on the part of his biographer. And the problem is complicated by the fact that Feynman was himself a born explainer, a spellbinding lecturer, and an extremely talented science writer. The biographer is at risk of being swamped by the physics while simultaneously being overshadowed by Feynman’s own books, including his classic three volume Lectures on Physics. The story of his life and science, apparently an ideal subject, is a potential nightmare.

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