17 April 2011


Lawrence M Krauss. Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science. W. W. Norton, 2011.

It is a conceit among paranormalists and forteans that mainstream scientists are rather dull, conventional and staid folks. These were hardly the epithets which could be applied to Richard Feynman (1918-1988), the subject of this biography. He was what was known as a 'colourful character' which meant that aspects of his life were closer to those of a Hollywood star than the conventional image of the scientist.
This book, written by a physicist concentrates on Feynman's numerous contributions to the development of quantum and particle physics, and it perhaps says a lot about how most scientists make there most profound contributions to science when they are young, in that we are almost halfway through this book before reaching the end of the 1940s, and that the last 20 years of his life are given little treatment.

Perhaps for the lay reader the interest in Feynman's life lies in the thin line behind genius and madness. As a young man he seems to have been a brilliant but otherwise fairly conventional person, but in the mid 1940s his first wife, Arline who had been his high school sweetheart, and whom he had married despite her terminal TB, and against the advice of both families, died, followed shortly afterwards by the death of his father. This double tragedy seems to have provoked what was almost certainly a profound mental breakdown, one which probably today would have been diagnosed as a form of bipolar disorder. His private life went completely off the rails and his whole behaviour seemed to show a reckless disregard of any convention. He became pretty literally a sex addict, with an endless sequence of reckless affairs, took to playing bongos in a salsa band in Brazil etc.

Yet this crazy period which lasted from 1947 to his third marriage in 1959 was his most scientifically creative period, the one in which he was in the forefront of developments in his field. His return to a least relative normality on his third marriage seems to have signalled the end of this highly creative period. He then turned more to education, producing the lectures for which he became famous, but which Krauss suggests few of his students fully understood, becoming something of a public persona (his role on the Challenger panel for example), turning his attention to computing, and in physics, rather like Einstein become a more isolated figure.

Krauss argues that Feynman achieved much but could have achieved more if he followed through more, and been more open to the ideas of others, rather than feeling to work out everything himself from first principles.

It is a moot point as to whether had Arline lived and Feynman had had a "normal" life, he would have been an ever better physicist, or whether he would have lacked the reckless ability to think way beyond the box,, and the perhaps addictive compulsions which drove him.

His story is a also a salutary lesson in how madness and sanity are socially constructed. When Feynman received a very negative psychiatric report in 1947 he and a colleague Hans Bethe treated it as huge joke, and his behaviour seems to have been more or less tolerated, a suburban housewife of the same time and place exhibiting the same behaviour would almost certainly have been forcibly incarcerated into a psychiatric hospital, and today not even a college professor would have got away with it, without being pushed not very voluntarily into therapy or some upmarket clinic. Peter Rogerson.

No comments: