Some things are certain by dacase []
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Genius : the life and science of Richard Feynman

by James Gleick

  Print book : Biography  |  [First edition]

1 of 1 people found this review helpful.
Some things are certain   (2012-07-23)


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by dacase

     Genius is a wonderful biography of a very worthy person.  I hesitated to bother reading after learning so much about Feynman from Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, and from What Do You Care What People Think, which I highly recommend, too.  Gleick is to be commended for relying upon these sources with serious caution because they are obviously biased to make F. look about as good as possible.  Clearly, he was an admirable person even with the blemishes revealed in Genius.  What blemishes were there?  Well, clearly one thing that is certain ("Nothing is certain"--page 3, a sincere F. quote) is, DUH, mortality--he and his heroically beloved first wife Arline are dead.  Next, F. praised actual research (data collection) over theory/philosophy of physics, such as in his criticism of Roger Bacon in relation to Galileo and Newton.  But F. did not conduct physics experiments.  He let down Arline with his broken promise to be candid about her illness and prognosis.  And he irresponsibly refused to review manuscripts submitted for publication or to assist in grant writing at Cal Tech.  I could go on, but this is enough to make the point.  And so, what good was he aside from contributing to the delightful books mentioned?

     I am not sure.  Previously I suspected that even though he was not one to discover new facts or to propose grand theories such as Maxwell equations, thermodynamic laws, relativity, mass-energy equivalence, and quantum mechanics, he was notably successful as a teacher.  Now I see that this is not true either.  Three examples: 1) When asked by a layman to explain magnetism, he avowed not himself to understand it in terms of familiar things.  Huh?  Clearly we understand 'force' (as in magnetic force) from everyday pushing, pulling, lifting, colliding with things, etc., all at the macro level and absent magnetism (whatever it is), atomic theory, calculus, etc.  F. was disingenuous, to put it mildly.  2) His introductory course at Cal Tech failed to even retain the intended audience, much less demonstrate transmission of knowledge (as tested for with examinations involving correct answers).  Other colleges that tried to adopt his lectures as a text for their courses gave up, returning to the tried and true.  3) F. tried to change pedagogy of grade school arithmetic (his son's education at the time) by emphasizing getting the correct answer to problems regardless of method.  Sure, his intentions were to encourage multiple valid methods, but as we know from our experiences the temptation is strong to just guess or cheat.  F. did not believe guessing was all that bad a method.  Did he also condone (his own) cheating?

     I found at least a dozen spots worth a margin correction or critical comment, but on the whole this book was carefully written and edited.

     What good did Feynman do?  He was tremendously instrumental in building atom bombs, or at least the fission one.  Two of them killed many innocent people but also likely spared many others and of course Allied warriors.  It seems clear now that the Nazis were no where close to building the bomb, although surely they would have succeeded eventually if not so quickly defeated using conventional means.  F. also helped to detect the cause of the space shuttle Challenger crack-up and to note, where others feared to tread, the serious problems with NASA itself.  However, this did not prevent the Columbia catastrophe, nor is it clear that his efforts succeeded in reforming NASA corruption/incompetence.  F. set an example for physics types about how to act more like a normal person.  He also was useful as a skeptic of physics data and theories.  He won the Nobel Prize.  But it was shared with two others and it did not win for anyone making a new discovery.  In his words, the idea for renormalization in quantum theory calculations amounted to sweeping a dilemma under the rug rather than resolving it.  Calculations based upon assuming that electrons act on themselves the same as they act on other particles encountered led to infinities (a.k.a., nonsense).  This idea still seems a bit crazy to me, but apparently it had to be a part of the theory in order to account for data such as from the double slit experiment.

       Apparently some have argued that Feynman deserved the Nobel for his other work, such as in super-fluids or nano-physics.   As a layman I cannot tell if this is compelling.  I deem it better not to speculate on this, but rather to give praise for his making people laugh using really worthy humor.  It is sad that his life was largely a waste because he looked for fundamental knowledge of the world in the wrong places.  The foundations of reality (science) are not in particle physics nor in mathematics, but in philosophy and psychological science, two areas he disdained and of course knew almost nothing about.  Perhaps his life's failures can be a lesson to learn from.

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