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Feynman s/c

Feynman s/c back

Jim Ottaviani & Leland Myrick


Page 45 Review by Jonathan

"Oh by the way, I forgot to tell you, Tommy invited us for dinner to meet an old bore."
"An old bore? Who would... Waitaminnit - did he say an old bore, or meet the old Bohr?*"
"What difference does it make?"
"Well the spelling is different for one thing!"

Ah, whilst Stephen Hawking might arguably lay claim to be the most famous scientist of the second half of the 20th century, and despite the vocoding one busting many a phat rhyme expounding about being down with entropy and dissing the creationists in his hip-hop guise of MC Hawking, the coolest scientist of them all in my eyes at least was Richard Feynman. Most of you will probably never have heard of him, yet he was a key member of the Manhattan project during WW2 helping the US military invent the atomic bomb, and then developed a whole new branch of science called QED, Quantum Electrodynamics. Why is QED important? Well, as Feynman himself was fond of pointing out, with QED you can explain absolutely everything we ordinarily experience on a day to day basis, except gravity and radioactivity, so it's pretty important.

I suppose Feynman first came to my attention as a kid in the aftermath of the Challenger shuttle disaster. Such was the high regard he was held in within political, military and obviously scientific circles that he was asked to be on the select committee investigating the cause of the disaster. When it became apparent that the usual spin was going to be applied to play down the causes of the disaster he threatened to release his own report, unless his conclusions were included in the official report verbatim. The powers that be reluctantly agreed, including them in their entirety, but as a separate appendix. It was widely observed that most people merely skipped the rest of the report and read Feynman's unvarnished, and accurate, conclusions.

What I marvelled at most about Feynman, was here was someone who absolutely defied the common perception of the archetypal drab boring scientist. He played bongos, he cracked safes for a hobby, he worked on research papers whilst drinking soda every night in his favourite strip club... which his wife was actually happy to let him do. When he fancied a new challenge, he'd just up and find himself one, learning to play weird instruments, but not just being satisfied to master the basics, he'd have to become good enough to play in a band at the Rio Carnival for example! He taught himself to draw to an incredibly high standard too, and even had a crack at learning Chinese, though he did admit to finding that pretty tough.

When he won his Nobel Prize for physics, it's pretty revealing that when anyone asked him about it and all the attendant hoopla and ceremony, his anecdote was always the snappy one-liner delivered to him by a New York cabbie, which he freely admitted he wished he'd thought of himself. The cabbie told him that when he saw Feynman being interviewed on television by reporters and asked to explain exactly why he'd won the prize, he didn't understand a single word that Feynman had said, and that if he'd been in Feynman's position he'd simply have stated to the assembled journalists, "If I could explain it in three minutes, it wouldn't be worth the Nobel Prize!"

It's a testament to the creators of this work that they manage to capture all these myriad, fascinating facets of Feynman's life, not just his immense contributions to science, but the vigour with which he approached every single thing he did, including his romantic and professional relationships. This is an absolute must for anyone who enjoyed LOGICOMIX, in fact I would go so far as to say this is actually a superior work, which is high praise indeed given how highly I rate that particular book. And indeed this is also easily my favourite biographical work of this year too hands down. So whilst Hawking might manage to pull his nurse, and get the guest appearances on Star Trek playing poker with Picard, Feynman for me will always be the dude.

* refers, of course, to Niels Bohr, Danish Nobel prize winning physicist and another Manhattan Project member.