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Tucson Weekly The Feynman Follies

A New Biography Captures Both The Fun And Profundity Of A Great Physicist

By Dave McElfresh

Richard Feynman, by John and Mary Gribbin (Dutton), Cloth, $24.95.

SEPTEMBER 29, 1997:  CARL SAGAN BECAME the most well-know scientist of the past several decades by replacing the intimidation we feel about test tubes and telescopes with a sense of wonder. He was the even-tempered big brother who oh-so patiently brought the dizzying heights of the sciences down to eye level for the rest of us--his final book, The Demon-Haunted World, is almost infuriatingly gentle in debunking such rubbish as astrology and telekinesis.

Though far less known, Richard Phillips Feynman caught some of the public's eye for being quite the opposite--this wild-haired, joking physicist has come across as a real rascal in a field where personalities are often as colorless as labcoats. And he was damn near an Indiana Jones in his ability to be where the excitement was throughout the last 50 years of scientific development. He worked on the Manhattan Project during the early stages of creating the atomic bomb; he received the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work on the theory of radiation; and he held the prestigious position of professor of physics at CalTech from 1950 until his death in 1988. He was also part of the committee that investigated the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986 (Feynman was responsible for identifying the problem of the rubber seals on the booster rocket); and he contributed greatly to the development of particle physics.

Science writers John and Mary Gribbin have taken on a risky project in writing his biography, considering that the late physicist wrote two volumes of autobiography--Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?--that read as colorfully as he spoke.

But the forever restless physicist was far more inclined to write about memorable encounters with others than he was to use his books to explain his work. Feynman's own books reveal the adventures of a significant scientist; the Gribbins' book explains how he came to become one. Thankfully, like Feynman himself, they incorporate many diagrams to explain his findings in quantum electrodynamics and quantum chromodynamics. To the Gribbins' credit, the explanations of his work are often as fascinating as the many Feynman stories they include; stories like how Feynman, undergoing surgery for the cancer that would kill him, asked the doctors to relieve him of the anesthetic if it didn't look like he'd come through, in order that he could "see what it was like to go out." He survived that operation and a much more severe one, to play bongos in a CalTech version of South Pacific--a typical example of how Feynman refused to spend his life holed up in the often stuffy halls of academe.

The Gribbins successfully pull off a combination biography/science text that not only does well in mixing tales of the man with readable explanations of complex discoveries, but also presents a fine primer for those interested in Feynman's own, less thorough, version of his life.


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