26 March, 2012Issue 18.6Science

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The Feynman Behind the Myth

Josh Rosaler

BritishLawrence M. Krauss
Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science
W.W. Norton & Co., 2012
368 pages
ISBN 978-0393340655


The lore surrounding Richard Feynman, the iconic physicist who changed the face of quantum theory and was recruited, at the age of 24, to help build the atomic bomb, has only continued to grow since his death in 1988. Largely unknown outside the scientific community until the final years of his life, Feynman first achieved widespread public recognition for his pivotal role in uncovering the cause of the space shuttle Challenger disaster, which he illustrated in an impromptu, nationally televised experiment using nothing more than a cup of cold water and one of the rubber rings from the shuttle’s engines. Since then, Feynman’s life has become a reservoir of entertaining anecdotes for popularizers of physics and science more generally, and his image, cast as a unique embodiment of the free-thinking genius, has slowly percolated into popular culture. Apple’s “Think Different” campaign, which ran adverts featuring Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, Gandhi, and Einstein, devoted one to Feynman, which showed a picture of him lecturing to a group of students at Caltech, carefully gesticulating in order to illustrate a concept from quantum mechanics and wearing the wry, confident smile that seems to appear in almost every picture of him. While Feynman may not be the household name that Einstein or Gandhi is, the magnitude of his scientific contributions, along with his colossal personality, have placed him among these immortals in the minds of many.

There can be little doubt that one of the major sources of popular fascination with Feynman is the juxtaposition, which he no doubt worked to cultivate, of the loftiness of his intellectual achievements and his sometimes militantly plebeian persona. Feynman anecdotes tend to underscore two things about the man: first, that he was always the smartest person in the room, even among the leading lights of physics of the day; and second, his disregard and even contempt for any sort of conformist or conventional thinking. While a professor at Caltech, and after winning the Nobel Prize, Feynman would frequent a Pasadena strip club to work on his calculations, stopping to look at the girls when he was having difficulty. It is obvious from his recounting of the story that Feynman derived a great deal of self-satisfaction from his part in bridging the great divide between theoretical physics and female nudity. Perhaps it was Feynman’s mother who registered the most amusing and poignant reaction to this aspect of Feynman’s character; when Omni, a widely read popular science magazine at the time, named Feynman the “Smartest Man in the World”, her response was brief: “If that’s the world’s smartest man, God help us.”

In his new biography of Feynman, Lawrence Krauss, a physicist himself, probes well beneath this caricature to reveal many of the personal and intellectual struggles that defined Feynman’s life, entwining his accounts of these parallel lives with an often seamless continuity and conveying arcane technical ideas with admirable clarity. Yet in his efforts to get at the core of Feynman’s thinking, both about his work and his personal life, Krauss occasionally relinquishes the lens of qualified respect for his subject in favour of the fawning reverence that is too often lavished on the heroes of any field—as though Feynman’s mojo, even now, were too overpowering for his biographer’s balanced rationality to resist. It is quite clear that writing this biography was a deeply personal project for Krauss, and the degree to which Krauss permits himself, deliberately or not, to abdicate the safe vantage point of an external observer is as much a virtue of the work as it is a flaw. Krauss, in attempting to understand what made Feynman tick and how he thought, portrays a new, more hidden side of Feynman: the lost soul, the lonely bachelor and broken-hearted widower, the intellectual consumed by ambition and the ever-present need to make his mark.

Krauss’s biography becomes especially poignant when portraying Feynman’s relationship with Arline, his first wife. He paints them as an indomitable, insular couple whose union elevated them above the rest of the world, though their relationship was in many ways profoundly unequal and Arline always, but willingly, came second to Richard’s goal of becoming a great physicist. Arline, moreover, was afflicted with a terminal, but slow-acting case of tuberculosis, which both Richard and she knew would kill her while she was still young. In a letter to his mother, who opposed his marriage to Arline, Feynman wrote, “I want to marry Arline because I love her – which means I want to take care of her. That is all there is to it…I have, however, other desires and aims in the world. One of them is to contribute as much to physics as I can. This is, in my mind, of even more importance than my love for Arline.” Krauss’s account of their wedding, moreover, beautifully underscores the stark circumstances of their romance: “On what would be their wedding day, Richard borrowed a station wagon from a friend, which he outfitted with mattresses so Arline could lie down. Then he drove from Princeton to her parents’ home and picked her up in her wedding dress, and together they drove to Staten Island for a wedding ceremony with no family or acquaintances, and from there to what would become Arline’s temporary new home, a charity hospital in New Jersey!”

Arline and Feynman had met at their high school in Far Rockaway, New York; so perhaps it is appropriate that it was also there that he first encountered the other love of his life: physics. One day, or so the story goes, he was sitting in the back of class looking bored, having finished the exercise that his physics teacher had assigned. The teacher decided to pique his interest by introducing him to one of first big ideas that would truly capture his imagination: of all the paths that an object could take as it moves from one place to another, the one that it actually takes is the one which minimises a simple quantity known as “action”. Feynman found this miraculous: how does the object “know” which path is going to be most efficient in this sense? Later in life, while writing his PhD thesis at Princeton, Feynman would apply this principle in order to recast quantum theory in completely new terms, viewing fundamental particles such as electrons as objects which do not simply take one path between two points, as ordinary classical particles do, but rather take every conceivable path simultaneously. Using this principle, also known as the “sum over histories” formulation of quantum mechanics, Feynman would later construct the theory, known as quantum electrodynamics (QED), that would win him the Nobel Prize.

Yet, for all the depth of Krauss’s insight into Feynman, his tone in certain passages emits a faint and cloying air of hero worship. Sentences such as, “Perhaps it took a man who was willing to break all of the rules to fully tame a theory like quantum mechanics that breaks all of the rules”, read as though the author were picturing Feynman, shirt ripped open, rose in teeth, the rippling muscles of chest exposed, as the irrepressible Quantum Man taming the wild stallion of quantum electrodynamics. Certain passages, particularly covering Feynman’s days of womanizing in Brazil, are peppered with sentences like these, in which the author seems almost to be writing from the perspective of Feynman’s imaginary wingman.

Krauss’s biography makes clear that from an early age, Feynman was driven by a powerful sense of destiny and a profound skepticism for any sort of received wisdom, whether in the realm of physics or everyday life. It was these fundamental aspects of his character, combined with a preternatural gift for his field, that enabled him to revolutionise our understanding of the physical universe. In this respect, Feynman was not much different from other great thinkers who managed to reshape our understanding of the world. What made Feynman unique, perhaps, was the great skill and effort that he put into mythologizing himself, and the novelty of the mythology that he left behind. Murray Gell-Mann, a famous collaborator and rival of Feynman’s and a seminal physicist in his own right, once recounted with some irritation—in fact, to some of Feynman’s family members at a memorial service after his death—that Feynman “spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself.” (Indeed, most popular Feynman anecdotes can be found in Feyman’s two books of autobiographical essays, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think?)

Feynman liked to say that, for him, the real joy of doing physics was the “pleasure of finding things out” and claimed that he would have turned down the Nobel Prize had he not thought that doing so would bring him even more publicity. Yet it is hard not to be suspicious of someone who claims to be above accolades and celebrity while at the same time reaping and even relishing in their benefits; no doubt Gell-Mann, for all that he might have been jealous of Feynman’s celebrity, felt that Feynman’s ambitions extended beyond the self-effacing joy of discovery to crass attention-seeking. And for all of Feynman’s probing and questioning and disregard for convention, perhaps what we ought to be most careful not to forget when considering the life of such a revered figure is that anyone who claims to be immune to the baser motives of recognition and success must themselves be regarded with a healthy dose of skepticism.

Joshua Rosaler is reading for a DPhil in Philosophy at Pembroke College, Oxford. He is a senior editor at the Oxonian Review.