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.

James Gleick’s Genius, published in 1992, was faulted by some of Feynman’s friends for not capturing the playful side of Feynman’s personality; others complained that the book’s avoidance of mathematics made for an anaemic rendering of the science. Neither criticism can be made of Jagdish Mehra’s The Beat of a Different Drum. As a theoretical physicist with a publication record in the history of quantum mechanics, Mehra seems to be exceptionally well qualified for his task. At the outset he appears to have two distinct advantages over Gleick: first, he’s a professional physicist with an intimate knowledge of theoretical physics; secondly, whereas Gleick never met Feynman, Mehra knew him personally, and interviewed him, apparently at length, on two widely-separated occasions: in April 1970 and in January 1988, a month before Feynman’s death. If it were possible for anyone to write an authoritative account of the life and science of Richard Feynman, Jagdish Mehra would seem to be the man to do it.

In large measure, he is. Feynman’s life story is well told, from his youth in Far Rockaway, New York, to his undergraduate days at MIT, through graduate school at Princeton, to Caltech: ‘a one-dimensional school, which is ideally suited for a one-dimensional guy like me. No clutter with philosophy, history, psychology and sociology – just the emphasis on science and engineering.’ Mehra’s is a warts-and-all approach, incorporating its share of damaging information and catty remarks. Some of Feynman’s students, for example, never much liked him. ‘He didn’t take an interest in you or your problems,’ said one student. ‘He was only interested in physics, not in you as a human being.’ Feynman, for his part, regarded most of his students as duds. ‘I can list my students.’ he once told Mehra, ‘and every one of them mediocre guys, somehow failures one way or the other. Most of my students were some kind of failures.’ Earlier in the book Mehra recounts the occasion, only three days after the death of Feynman’s first wife, Arline – ostensibly his one great love – when he said to his friends: ‘Let’s go to the boardwalk and try to pick up some girls.’ ‘This episode went through my mind many, many times since then,’ said one of the friends. ‘Richard’s great talents that served him so well in science were somewhat less effective in the sphere of human emotions, earning him our endearing title: T.B. (Tactless Bastard) Feynman.’ Clearly, Feynman was no exception to the rule that people blessed with lopsided amounts of talent in one direction have a corresponding defect elsewhere in the personality.

His single-mindedness about science went back to childhood, where his father, Melville, a small businessman in the New York borough of Queens, seems to have been a mini-Richard Feynman himself. At any rate he taught his son to observe nature, and to think about how things work. ‘When we would go for walks, we would look at things all the time, and then my father would tell me about things of every kind: the stars, bugs, geometry. He was always telling me interesting things: the way the birds fly, the way the oceans work.’ He also taught Richard to think for himself, and to distrust authority as if it were poison. In the Feynman household, the question of who made a given claim was never regarded as an important issue. ‘There were positive efforts not to pay attention to who said it,’ Feynman recalled. ‘It was not just disregard, it was an understanding that it was irrelevant.’ Authorities, after all, were just people. ‘The difference is epaulets,’ his father said.

It was that same curiosity about nature, coupled with a great independence of mind, that made for Feynman’s own highly idiosyncratic approach to physics. Who but someone unbound by preconception would be capable of imagining waves that travelled backward in time, or particles that traversed all possible routes between origin and destination? Feynman always hated to research a problem; he preferred instead to reinvent the wheel in each case, figuring things out from the bottom up, seeing the matter in his own special way.

Mehra’s book is heavy on the science, which allows Feynman’s true genius to come through clearly – at least to those who can follow it all. The problem for the general reader is that the book is aimed not at them but rather at those working scientists who are at home with higher mathematics and the jargon and concepts of theoretical physics. Mehra makes little attempt to break down or simplify any of the science for non-specialists. All too often a stretch of personal anecdotes is followed immediately by a litany of equations and/or diagrams plus some ‘explanatory’ remarks. ‘The appearance of Zs(α) is connected with the necessary generalisation of Hamiltonian parameters already anticipated by Feynman (in his letter of 7 June 1955 to Schultz) in respect of the fact that the real phonons scatter polarons and not electrons.’ Those who don’t know what a Hamiltonian is will find themselves skipping past many pages of solid maths and impenetrable prose. Some of Feynman’s most important innovations – his path-integral method and his development of ‘Feynman diagrams’ – are never explained in simple, clear English. This is unfortunate: it was for such work that Feynman won his prizes and honours, but what it all means is largely lost to the lay reader of Mehra’s text.

But then again, popular science writing is an extremely demanding speciality. It requires that you know the science in question, or that you make a determined attempt to learn it. But then you have to figure out how to explain it in such a way that it’s made clear to the general reader. Additionally, the writer has to contend with matters of pace, drama and style – and fashioning all these elements into a satisfactory narrative is a complex and tricky business. Feynman himself was a master of the art: he planned his lectures (later published as The Feynman Lectures on Physics) as if they were theatre pieces. ‘I wasn’t only worried about the content of each lecture, but also each lecture had to be self-contained, complete in itself. It had to be a dramatic production – which had a dramatic line, with an introduction, a development of the theme, and a dénouement.’ Always, Feynman made a concerted attempt to present the subject from an elementary point of view, so that any intelligent person could understand it – even if, for the sake of completeness, he later trotted out some equations.

Mehra’s text suffers in comparison to the best science writing: James Gleick’s, as well as Feynman’s. Mehra’s account of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman’s speciality, is a case in point. This is a topic, concerning the interactions between elementary particles and electromagnetic radiation, which is not easy to present under any circumstances; but in the fall of 1983, Feynman gave a set of four lectures on the subject to a general audience at UCLA. The lectures were transcribed, edited and revised, and in 1985 published by Princeton under the title QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter. Feynman claimed that he’d tried ‘to achieve maximum clarity and simplicity without compromise by distortion of the truth,’ and in this he succeeded to a phenomenal degree. Vivid, witty and stylish, the book is a model of how to make an inaccessible subject understandable. Mehra’s account of quantum electrodynamics, by contrast, reads more like a freshman physics text.

Mehra, furthermore, does not seem to be quite at ease as a writer. Lack of selectivity is one problem. Not everything that Feynman did, said, or wrote is of equal importance; but Mehra makes little effort to separate the wheat from the chaff, and for the most part determinedly plods through every last YMCA talk or commencement address that Feynman ever gave. His system of citations is often puzzling. In many cases two (and sometimes three) references are appended to a given quote: ‘I love challenges. I always have. In fact, later hobbies at the beginning were not scientific but were always challenges – picking locks, cracking codes, analysing hieroglyphs that nobody knows how to translate, they were there all the time.1,4,6’ Note 1 says: ‘R.P. Feynman, interviews and conversations with Jagdish Mehra, in Pasadena, California, January 1988.’ Note 4 says: ‘R.P. Feynman, interviews with Charles Weiner (American Institute of Physics), in Pasadena, California, 1966.’ Note 6 says: ‘R.P. Feynman, “Surely you’re joking. Mr Feynman!” Norton, New York, 1985, p. 20.’ How are we to understand these three separate references? Are we to believe that these same exact words appear in all three sources? This is unlikely, and in fact the quote in question does not appear on page 20 of ‘Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman!’ Does the quote then appear in only one of the sources? If so, which one? Or has it been pieced together from all three? Mehra doesn’t tell us.

At other points, Mehra’s ‘interviews and conversations’ with Feynman do not seem to be reflected in his text at all. On the subject of Feynman’s interest in molecular machines – atomic-scale computers, manufacturing systems and the like – Mehra says that ‘Feynman told me... about his interest in nanotechnology,’ but in fact Mehra’s presentation of the subject derives almost exclusively from two sources: Feynman’s 1959 lecture ‘There’s plenty of room at the bottom,’ which Mehra summarises, and a later account, published in the Caltech alumni journal Engineering and Science, Mehra’s use of which goes beyond mere summary. From Engineering and Science:

  So – after that it was the rare day when Feynman was not interrupted in his lab by someone eager to show him what usually turned out to be a very large small motor.

  Last month, when William McLellan (Caltech ’50) walked into Feynman’s lab with his small motor, it looked like the same old story, because McLellan was carrying his invention in a big grocery carton.

  OK, said Feynman wearily, he’d look at the thing – but there was no money in it for anybody. It had been his intention to set up a prize, but he never got around to doing it.

  That was all right with McLellan. It was the challenge that had set him to work on the problem anyway. Then he took a microscope out of the grocery carton and let Feynman look in it to see the motor he had built ...

From The Beat of a Different Drum:

  ... it was a rare day when Feynman was not interrupted in his office by someone eager to show him what usually turned out to be a very large small motor.

  In November 1960, William McLellan, a senior engineer at Electro-Optical Systems in Pasadena, California, walked into Feynman’s office in the Biology Department with his small motor. It looked like the same old story, because McLellan was carrying his invention in a big grocery carton. OK, said Feynman wearily, he would look at the thing – but there was no money in it for anybody; it had been his intention to set up the prize, but never got around to doing it.

  This was all right with McLellan. It was a challenge that had set him to work on the problem anyway. Then he took a microscope out of the grocery carton and let Feynman look in to see the motor he had built ...

But for all its shortcomings, Mehra’s biography is a useful book, one that succeeds in spite of itself. It’s a fount of new information about Feynman, much of it presented in the master’s own voice. For physicists, this may be the preferred biography. In the end, Feynman’s life story, wonderfully crazy, is immune to any number of blunders on the part of a potential biographer. Feynman seemed to be in direct, intuitive contact with the fundamental realities of the universe. A swami of physics, bumptious and beaming, his was a fabulous life, one that anyone in their right mind would want to have lived.