March 21, 2019

Review: Quantum Man by Lawrence M. Krauss.


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Once a generation or so, a mind comes along that not only spans the interdisciplinary chasms, but also propels our insight ahead by generations. Such a mind belonged to physicist Richard Feynman, the subject of this week’s review, Quantum Man by Lawrence M. Krauss out by Norton books as part of their Great Discoveries series. Yes, this has turned into a “Quantum Summer” here at Astroguyz HQ, as we have read enough about this sometimes arcane field of physics to make our brain cells appear both alive and dead spontaneously.

A few may remember Feynman for the role he played in leading up the investigation of the space shuttle Challenger disaster in his final years; perhaps some will remember his crucial role as a popularizer of science in the early 60’s. But the list of discoveries that bear his name reads like a history of latter 20th century physics; from the Bethe-Feynman formula which was his contribution to the Manhattan Project, to the Hellmann-Feynman theorem, to the ubiquitous Feynman diagrams, so many of his pioneering works are crucial to modern quantum physics and studies of quarks, super-symmetry and the study of string theory as well as the hunt for the elusive Higgs-Boson. Research in the fields of quantum entanglement and quantum computing can both be traced back to Feynman. In fact, if any theme ran through Feynman’s life and research it was that of collaboration. It’s amazing the number of times he brushed up next to an epochal discovery before finally receiving a joint Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for work in quantum electrodynamics. Feynman could be said to be the great “point man” of 20th century Physics, with a record number of assists worthy of a Gretzky or a Bird.

But beyond cutting-edge research, Feynman was also a great science educator, and capable of getting across even complex ideas to a lay audience. It’s worth digging up and watching his old lectures still available online in their entirety. Feynman has a very easy going Brooklyn demeanor, totally diametric to the indecipherable stereo-type of the 20th century scientist. Feynman was the archetype of what science strives for; to simplify, not to add undue complexity. Anecdotes of his eccentricities are almost legendary, from his prowess of the bongo drums to his propensity to do calculus while driving to his frequenting strip clubs while working on particularly difficult problems… Ahhhh, no great mind is complete without the bizarre tales that often swirl around them…

But in the end, what truly made Feynman great was his ability to see and accept the universe for not what he wished it to be, but for what it truly is. Feynman liked to joke that “The game I play is a very interesting one. It’s imagination, in a tight straitjacket.” You can use whatever colors your mind provides, but you have to stay within the lines of what reality says is possible.

Do give Quantum Man a read as a very insightful and accessible look at the man who pioneered what to many is a very difficult subject. Along with our artistic and musical accomplishments, our insights in physics are what most of us think of when we compile a shortlist of the most noble of human accomplishments… we may see the discovery of the Higgs-Boson and gravity waves come to pass very shortly, and Feynman’s “assists” will no doubt echo through those discoveries as well!

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