Sunday, September 25, 2016

Book review: Feynman's Rainbow by Leonard Mlodinow

Year published: 2003
Date I finished reading: May 10, 2015
Genre: Memoir
Rating: A

Review:  In 1981, Leonard Mlodinow got his PhD in physics from Berkeley. His dissertation was so good that he landed a dream job - a fellowship at Caltech, with no duties or obligations. He didn't have to teach (but could if he wanted) and he could study whatever he liked.

He arrives.

In the office next to him is Murray Gell-Mann. Down the hall is Richard Feynman - these are the two most important American physicists of the post World War II era. Also on the hall is John Schwarz, who would do more than anyone else to develop string theory - which dominates physics nowadays. Leonard Mlodinow is not at all sure he belongs; he takes his troubles down the hall to Richard Feynman. This is the story of what happens next.

At the time, Feynman was already dying from cancer; he's famously cantankerous and iconoclastic. As Mlodinow puts it, Richard Feynman has many of the positive and negative aspects of a child - a grown up, and extraordinarily brilliant child, to be sure, but a child nonetheless. He does what he wants, whether it is rude or not - and is known for walking out in the middle of a talk if he is bored with it. Murray Gell-Mann is his peer, his friend, his rival, and his nemesis. Gell-Mann, best known as a physicist, is also a linguist and an expert on birds; he knows all about antiquities; he knows all about almost everything, and isn't the least bit shy about telling people what he knows.

But what Leonard Mlodinow learns from Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann is not so much physics - at least, any physics he learns is only alluded to in this book - as how to live a life worth living; how to follow his own star. He winds up, in the end, leaving Caltech and leaving physics - he became a professional writer, both of popular science books and of screenplays for Star Trek.

The subtitle of this Feynman's Rainbow is A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life. And that's what this little book is. In the story that gave rise to the title, Mlodinow comes upon Feynman looking intently at a rainbow. In the conversation that follows, we learn that it was Rene Descartes who first analyzed the rainbow. Feynman asks Mlodinow what he thinks Descartes' inspiration was. Mlodinow says:

"I suppose ... the realization that the problem could be analyzed by considering a single drop, and the geometry of the situation"
Richard Feynman: "You're overlooking a key feature of the phenomenon".

Leonard Mlodinow: "OK, I give up. What would you say inspired his theory?"

Richard Feynman: "I would say his inspiration was that he thought rainbows were beautiful".

That's Richard Feynman at his best; Mlodinow learned a lot from him, and, if you're like me, you'll learn a lot from this book.

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