Some time with Feynman

Richard Feynman was, without doubt, one of the most interesting men of the twentieth century. Nobel prize-winning physicist, strip club frequenter and bongo player extraordinaire his scientific life began as a researcher on the now infamous Manhattan project to build the nuclear bomb and ended in 1988 when he died after a long battle with a rare form of cancer.

I’ve just finished Leonard Mlodinow’s lovely little book Some time with Feynman. It’s the story of Mlodinow’s first year as a postdoc student in 1981 at Caltech where he found himself in an office just next to both Feynman and another Nobel laureate Murray Gell-Man. Murray and Feynman didn’t really get on — in their manner, their philosophy and their physics they could never agree, although there was a begrudging respect for each others’ genius.

Mlodinov had arrived at Caltech as an astoundingly bright young thing with free reign to find an area of research of his choosing. The trouble was he wasn’t sure he was up to the job and if he was, he didn’t have a clue which problem of theoretical physics he should attack. The book is the story of the young researcher’s conversations with the dying and by that time famous physicist about the biggest questions facing any scientist.

He really has captured the essence of Feynman and packaged it into a great little book. If you haven’t come across the curious character of Richard Feynman before, it’s a great read, but if you’ve read some of the other biographies of the great man (like James Gleick’s Genius), you’ll still get something new. More than that, it’s a wonderful explanation of why scientists (in the broadest sense) do what they do.

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