Richard Feynman, Superstar Scientist

Richard Feynman is my favourite scientist.

But this wasn’t the case until I ended up going to graduate school at California Institute of Technology. While studying at Caltech, I often came to the school’s bookstore and read for about an hour or so every morning. They had a huge section devoted to Richard Feynman (after all, Feynman taught at Caltech for most of his career). Over a span of a few months, I ended up reading several books by Richard Feynman. My favourite is probably What Do You Care What Other People Think?. Reading Feynman’s books, I began to appreciate that this wasn’t an ordinary scientist. He wanted to make a connection to everything he did, he wanted to understand how the world worked, and most importantly, he cared about the world he lived in and the people he met.

In the latest issue of The New York Review of Books, Freeman Dyson reviews two new books about Richard Feynman: Feynman (to be released in August 2011) by Jim Ottaviani and Quantum Man: Richard Feynman’s Life in Science by Lawrence M. Krauss. I haven’t read either of those books, while they do look compelling.

The overall summary provided by Dyson is excellent, even if I already knew much about Feynman’s history, and, for me, there wasn’t much new in the article. However, something that did stand out was this notion of “superstar scientist”:

Two new books now raise the question of whether Richard Feynman is rising to the status of superstar. The two books are very different in style and in substance. Lawrence Krauss’s book, Quantum Man, is a narrative of Feynman’s life as a scientist, skipping lightly over the personal adventures that have been emphasized in earlier biographies. Krauss succeeds in explaining in nontechnical language the essential core of Feynman’s thinking. Unlike any previous biographer, he takes the reader inside Feynman’s head and reconstructs the picture of nature as Feynman saw it. This is a new kind of scientific history, and Krauss is well qualified to write it, being an expert physicist and a gifted writer of scientific books for the general public.Quantum Man shows us the side of Feynman’s personality that was least visible to most of his admirers, the silent and persistent calculator working intensely through long days and nights to figure out how nature works.

If you had asked me to name superstar scientists in high school: Einstein, Millikan, Newton, M. Curie, and Bohr would have made the list. We didn’t learn about Feynman, unfortunately. But if you ask me today, then without hesitation, Feynman would be on my list of superstar scientists.

The entire summary is worth reading if you aren’t familiar with Feynman’s life. Absolutely have to agree with this, even if Feynman downplayed his exposure in his books (he served on the commission which sought to investigate the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster):

Feynman’s dramatic exposure of NASA incompetence and his O-ring demonstrations made him a hero to the general public. The event was the beginning of his rise to the status of superstar. Before his service on theChallenger commission, he was widely admired by knowledgeable people as a scientist and a colorful character. Afterward, he was admired by a much wider public, as a crusader for honesty and plain speaking in government. Anyone fighting secrecy and corruption in any part of the government could look to Feynman as a leader

This last tidbit was new to me and is some wonderful advice:

He [Richard Feynman] never showed the slightest resentment when I published some of his ideas before he did. He told me that he avoided disputes about priority in science by following a simple rule: “Always give the bastards more credit than they deserve.”

6 thoughts on “Richard Feynman, Superstar Scientist

  1. You (I) don’t need to have genius to celebrate genius. I celebrate Feynman because – first – he doesn’t know how to spell his own name according to convention. Secondly, he is a humanitarian. He loved people, and truth, and happiness, more than he love his gift. He had a gift of reason and a gift of love; and a sense of self-proportion and humility. Thirdly, he HAD a gift while living, and he left us a legacy; we have a gift: him. Don’t elevate him beyond the mortal man of mortal flaw of which he also was; just like all of us.

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