21 November 2009

Review: Classic Feynman

I have a fried who is always telling me what great reading the books of physicist Richard Feynman are. I finally got one from the library the other day, Classic Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character. It's a collection of two books of his, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What do You Care What Other People Think? that has been compiled by Feynman's friend Ralph Leighton.

A bit of biography before I get into the review. Feynman was born in 1918 and went to school at MIT and Princeton for physics. While at Princeton, he was recruited to work on the Manhattan Project. After the war he taught at Cornell and the finally Caltech, where he achieved his greatest fame. In 1961 Caltech was worried that it's entry level physics course was not modern enough, so they asked Professor Feynman, one of the leading quantum physicists in the world, if he would teach the course. Much to everyone's surprise, he agreed, though he had one condition: he would only teach the course once. Caltech wisely recorded all of the lectures (later released in this set) and took pictures of every blackboard diagram he made.

In 1965, Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum electrodynamic (no, I'm not quite sure what that is either). He was also a member of the presidential commission to investigate the causes of the 1986 Challenger explosion. In 1988 he died of a rare form of cancer.

Now that I have that out of the way, the book itself. It's a must read for anyone even vaguely interested in Feynman the person. Most of the stuff here isn't hard physics, and could certainly be understood by all (the difficult math and science that does pop up is not necessary for understanding the stories themselves). What you get are anecdotes from a fantastic story teller. How about cracking into the safes at the Manhattan Project? Or carousing with women in Brazil? The book is arranged in roughly chronological order so you work your way through Feynman's life without the structure of a biography.

But as good as the stories are, they can drag after a bit. Though they are all excellently told and read quickly, it seems like you're hearing mere variations on a theme. I was ready to give this book an interested-but-not-for-this-long "meh" until I reached the section about the Challenger crash investigation. The Challenger was the space shuttle that exploded 73 seconds after liftoff in January of 1986. Feynman's telling of the investigation and bureaucratic nightmares he faced in at once fascinating, gripping, and infuriating. Why would he be stopped from investigating when no one else wanted to? Why should he not put his nose in NASA's business? It was his mandate! This section completely saved the book for me.

And lest you should end on a bit of a sour note, there are a couple pieces at the end that wrap things up nicely. One is a commencement address Feynman gave to the 1974 Caltech class that encourages the students to make sure they research with integrity, not try merely to get funding. The other is Alan Alda's (yes, the actor) 2002 commencement address to the same school in which he makes an interesting proposal to the students:
What if each of you decided to take just one thing you love about science and, no matter how complicated it is, figure out a how to make it understood by a million people? There are about 500 of you taking part in this ceremony today. If just a few of you were successful, that would make several million people a lot smarter. 
What a brilliant idea. In the end, that's what I'm going to take from this book. Feynman doesn't try to impress with big words or lofty ideas; he lets the science amaze you itself. And he tries to make it understandable for anyone, so we can all get a glimpse at how incredibly amazing our universe is.

No comments:

Post a Comment