Bongo Drums, Quantum Leaps, And The Nobel Prize


By James Gleick

Pantheon Books -- 532pp -- $27.50

In the summer of 1986, I was in Cambridge, Mass., to write about Thinking Machines Corp., a small company hoping one day to build a superfast computer that would be able to "think." As I chatted about technology with three software engineers, a craggy-looking man, who I later learned was Nobel physics laureate Richard Feynman, walked into our circle and began discussing what it meant to think and whether a machine could actually do it. Intelligence, he mused, was a matter of creativity, not just analytical ability. A machine could probably never approximate the brain's capabilities, but the notion was intriguing. After that brief exposition, the man abruptly walked off to stare out the window at the Charles River. I remember wondering at the time, who is that guy?

Now I know, thanks to James Gleick's engaging biography of the legendary physicist, who died of cancer in 1988. Drawing on an array of sources--Feynman's private papers, interviews with family and friends, a thick FBI file, the work of other scholars, and Feynman's own best-seller, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!--Gleick gives a formidable account of one of the most original and idiosyncratic scientific minds of this century. Even among scientists who hate the term "genius" (unless, of course, it's applied to them), the word was permitted in connection with Feynman, says Gleick.

At the time I encountered him, Feynman was a technical adviser to Thinking Machines. He had just completed his work on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. He demonstrated then, as he often did, an innate ability to slash to the heart of a problem. In the case of the shuttle, the problem was the rubber O-rings that were supposed to keep hot gases from escaping the Challenger's boosters. It turned out that the rings lacked resilience at low temperatures--and the shuttle was launched in frigid weather. At a televised press conference, Feynman illustrated what had happened by dipping a small piece of rubber in ice water, then snapping it like a twig. "I believe this has some significance for our problem," he deadpanned.

Feynman's demonstration annoyed some fellow panel members, largely because he seemed to be playing to the cameras. But Feynman was always a bit of a showman, and certainly the antithesis of a nerdy scientist. He played bongos, seduced his colleagues' wives, frequented topless bars, experimented with hallucinogens, and, just for fun, picked safes at Los Alamos, where he helped develop the atom bomb in the 1940s.

In his previous book, the best-selling Chaos, about the study of chaotic behavior in physics, Gleick managed to communicate arcane scientific material in a fairly painless and entertaining fashion. He accomplishes the same feat here, helped in large part by Feynman's offbeat personality, which enlivens a book covering topics that some readers--especially those without a scientific bent--might consider heavy intellectual lifting.

Gleick takes a straight trajectory through Feynman's life, starting with his Jewish upbringing in New York's Far Rockaway section. At times, Gleick tells us more than we need to know: We learn that Feynman walked early but talked late and that he was awkward with girls. But some tidbits are illuminating. Interestingly, Feynman's IQ was a not-extraordinary 125. As a child, he built a device to rock his baby sister's crib, and he also used to boil water by running 110-volt house current through it. He liked to watch the blue and yellow lines of current in the water as the electricity broke up.

Such childlike curiosity appears to lie at the heart of Feynman's genius. Physicist Paul Olum once mused that when Feynman wanted to know what an electron would do under given circumstances, he merely asked himself: "If I were an electron, what would I do?" Similarly, it was Feynman's curiosity about how a knife can be sharp if its atoms are always "jiggling" that led him to look into the forces that cause atomic particles to simultaneously attract and repel one another.

In 1965, Feynman won the Nobel prize in physics for a radical reformulation of quantum mechanics known as quantum electrodynamics. He shared the prize with two other scientists who had come up with similar theories at about the same time--the late 1940s. But other physicists thought Feynman's version was by far the easiest to use and the most powerful. And his "Feynman diagrams" made it possible to picture particle interactions. Gleick suggests that at least three other Feynman projects were worthy of a Nobel.

Various episodes in the book show that Feynman, like many scientists, had a deep disdain for what he regarded as the intellectually "soft" fields of psychiatry and philosophy. Yet he comes across as something of a philosopher himself. "He believed in the primacy of doubt," Gleick writes, "not as a blemish upon our ability to know but as the essence of knowing. The alternative to uncertainty is authority, against which science had fought for centuries."

Before he died, Feynman worried that some future biographer might portray him either as a bloodless intellectual or as a bongo-playing kook. To his credit, Gleick captures both extremes of this outsized personality. In the end, it's easy to admire Feynman, but a bit more difficult to like him. Like Einstein before him, Feynman seems, to some degree, to have been a prisoner of the brilliance that set him apart. When a reporter pressed him to describe briefly the work that won him a Nobel, Feynman snapped: "Listen, buddy, if I could tell you in a minute what I did, it wouldn't be worth a Nobel."

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