Monday, January 09, 2006

Book Report: "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman"

It is my own fault that my science education has been so lacking. In high school, I took four years of English, math, and social studies, but only the required one year of science. I remember my thinking; I took four years of agriculture, because our ag teacher was interesting, and in the course of his rambling discourses he covered everything; biology, chemistry, botany, animal husbandry. But although Mr. Roberts's ag classes were interesting, there was little substance to them and I arrived in college with a minimal science foundation. When I got to college, I took a basic biology course, came close to flunking it and got so spooked by the experience I never took more than the one basic course.

Over the last ten years, I have tried to supplement my sorry education, by reading, on my own. I loved the Stephen Jay Gould books, particularly the collections of essays first published in "Natural History" magazine, but also his other popular works on evolution and other natural science subjects. Although far from having attained any academic rigor in my readings, I did become conversant with some of the concepts in biology.

I then decided it was time to try to supplement my meager knowledge in the physical sciences. The first book I finished in 2002 was "The Meaning of It All," by Richard Feynman. I was somewhat disappointed because it turned out to be a collection of lectures by Feynman, and the lectures did not have the elegant phrasings and the careful explanations that Gould did in his popular writings, but nevertheless, I found them interesting. My education was advanced incrementally, but I was still much more familiar with "punctuated equilibrium" than quarks.

The most recent book, "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman," was recommended to me by a friend whom I happened to meet while searching the stacks at the Champaign Public Library for a Book-on-Tape. Feynman was a physicist, a Nobel prize winner, who worked on developing the atomic bomb, and then later did work on quantum electrodynamics (even after reading the book, I'm not sure what that is.) He was an eccentric genius, probably in the next rank of physicists behind Einstein, but, of course, not nearly as well known as Einstein. He was very practically oriented, and loved to arrive at answers intuitively, without necessarily having worked out all the formulas that more pedestrian physicists insisted on. His eccentricities, besides being a skirt chaser of some note, included using logic to figure out how to crack the safes of his colleagues at Los Alamos, when the atomic bomb was being developed and tested.

The book includes a lot of physics, and in looking around the internet at what other people have said about the book, I get the impression that physicists love the book a lot. One reviewer who was a physics major, said that it was the only book to which he ever gave five stars. A lot of the physics was above my limited understanding, and that probably kept me from enjoying the book as much as someone better educated would have. I considered it an average book, and gave it three stars.

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