A Superb Introduction to an Under-Appreciated Man,
This review is from: No Ordinary Genius (Paperback)Richard Feynman was a remarkable man who lived many remarkable lives, most of which are succinctly summarized in this fast, engaging read. Relying upon testimonials from close friends and associates of Feynman's and mostly from Feynman's own recollections, No Ordinary Genius delves into each of these lives, including Feynman's childhood obsession with finding out how things worked (a trait inherited from his father), his work at Los Alamos both as the keeper of the keys to the mainframe processing the mathematical calculations for the Manhattan Project and as the head of on campus hi-jinx and safe-cracking, his Nobel Prize for developing the field of Quantum electrodynamics (and along the way the now famous "Feynman diagrams" which have become the physicist's graphical tool for "viewing" sub-atomic activity), his very early visionary forays into what has become nanotechnology, and his ability to buck the NASA bureaucracy and quickly get to the bottom of what really went wrong with the 1986 Challenger disaster. Along the way we learn of his love of people (including his two wives, the first of whom died when she was only about 20 years old of TB), of life, and of physics (though probably not in that order), and what begins to emerge is a rare character, a multi-dimensional, and apparently "human" genius-one with foibles like anyone else...but one surprisingly devoid (at least as Sykes's book of recollections would have us believe) of the peccadilloes and neuroses of similarly brilliant historic figures. In fact one wonders whether Feynman's relative "normalcy" may have prevented him from being more widely known outside of scientific circles. This is itself somewhat ironic as Feynman was not just a brilliant physicist in his own right, but was perhaps the greatest interpreter (and hence most accessible) of all physicists who tried to explain how the world really worked to the rest of us.
Feynman was often criticized for not giving greater weight to the moral consequences of the actions of scientists like him who were responsible for creating "the" Bomb. At one point toward the end of the book, and partially in response to this question about the morality of scientific progress, Feynman observes the interesting irony that it's only in the most free, open, and democratic societies (i.e, the U.S.) that computers capable of infringing the most upon individuals' privacy have been developed. I.e., the countries that would have stood to benefit the most from this advanced "snooping" technology (i.e., the USSR, China, etc.) during Feynman's Cold War days, weren't able to produce the requisite technological infrastructure.
Later, towards the end of the book, the Nobel laureate, Marvin Minsky speaks about a feeling he and Feynman shared about man's soul. "Now here you are, a person, and thirty thousand genes or more are working to make the brain, the most complicated organ. If you were to say it's just a spirit, just a soul, just a little hard diamondlike point with no structure, a gift from some creator, it's so degrading! It means that all of the sacrifice by all of our animal ancestors is ignored. It seems to me [any by implication, Feynman] that the religious view is the opposite of self-respect and understanding. It's taking the brain with a hundred billion neurons, and not using it. What a paradoxical thing to be taught to do!"
So at once you have Feynman then specifying democracy and freedom as the necessary precursors to allow for scientific innovation. Then later he's demonstrating his "belief" in the pre-eminence of reason over non-fact-based belief and religion. Though non-Objectivists and spiritualists could debate his point-of-view, it is particularly refreshing to observe in thought and action a true seeker of the way things truly work. In many respects, Richard Feynman was Ayn Rand's John Gault.
This book should be read as a precursor to getting to know one of the great characters of the 20th century. But it won't suffice if one really wants to understand his genius. For that, one has to read his two books of "Six Easy Pieces", his lecture on Quantum Electrodynamics, or most appropriately of all, his Lectures on Physics.