The Beat of a Different Drum--The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

Jagdish Mehra

Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1994. 630 pages.

   

Although this book has been kicking around for some eight years, I didn't become aware of it until recently. And now that I've finally read it, I'm almost sorry that I did, for a couple of reasons: first, the writing is amateurish, and second the technical material, which attempts to describe Feynman's work in physics, is incoherent. However, as badly written as it is the book does paint a graphic picture of Feynman the man, a picture that is not available elsewhere, for example in his two autobiographies.1 For this reason alone some people might find it worth reading. However be warned: the picture it paints of Feynman is graphic indeed!

Let me be explicit. First, the bad writing. Here is a typical example, from page 25:

"Richard's friend Leonard Mautner was with him at Far Rockaway High School; he had come from Cedarhurst. Then he was with him at MIT Later on in life, Mautner went to live in Pasadena, California, where Feynman was. It was all a pure coincidence. Richard and Leonard learned geometry together. Melville had told Richard that it was impossible to trisect a triangle, that it was impossible to find three pieces which were the same area together as the original triangle. Richard and Leonard managed to do it for an equilateral triangle. They thought it had never been done before, and dreamed that it would make news in all the papers. Leonard Mautner was about the same age as Richard Feynman, and they did all things together."

That's not even good high-school writing! And of course the excerpt cited above is but one example. The last paragraphs on pages 57 and 58, for instance, are even worse in their use of choppy sentences. I won't bother to quote them or any of the many other examples of juvenile prose found in the book. On to the next irritation.

About the time the author arrived at Chapter 19, he must have discovered the italics command in his word processor, because he proceeded to italicize not only excessively but also indiscriminately. Well, I'm sure you get the idea. Irritating!

I have other complaints too, such as sloppy editing. For example, George Placzek is referred to as George Plaszek on page 390. On page 108, a factor of two seems to be missing in Eq. (5.13). And on page 111, a mysterious equation in the text below Eq. (1.15) can be nothing but a typo. These are just a few of numerous examples. More serious perhaps is the fact that on several occasions the same information is repeated needlessly, even on adjacent pages. And rather incredibly, Mehra even manages to mess up a well-known platitude, referring to Feynman's son Carl as "a chip of [sic!] the old block."

However, the poor writing could be excused if the descriptions of Feynman's research achievements in physics understandable, but they're not. They are complete however, starting at the beginning with his undergraduate research at MIT on cosmic rays followed by a description of his senior thesis (in which he studied intermolecular forces). This material is understandable, after a fashion.2 A description of his research efforts as a Princeton graduate student then follow; these involved the use of advanced (in addition to the usual retarded) potentials in classical electromagnetic theory and, eventually, the development of the path-integral formulation of quantum mechanics. This early material, although not expressed clearly, can still be understood, albeit with some effort. The original Feynman papers, which I studied as a graduate student, are actually much clearer, and Mehra's book might have improved if he had omitted his rewrite of the technical material and simply appended the original papers.

On the other hand, the next section, on QED, Feynman's greatest work (for which he shared the 1965 Nobel Prize in physics) is incomprehensible. The reader who wants to learn about this work without going to the original papers would be better served by reading Schweber's excellent book.3

Chapter 17, on superfluidity, is a little better written, perhaps because Mehra had the collaboration of a couple of other authors (acknowledged in a footnote on page 348). In later chapters Feynman's work on polarons and partons is discussed, inter alia.4 Feynman's other major contribution to physics, the V-A weak interaction described in Chapter 21 (joint work with Murray Gell-Mann), is cheapened a little by Mehra's insistence on giving prior credit to Marshak and Sudershan (cf. Sec. 21.5). In fact, the latter two authors came upon V-A by way of lucky guess, while Feynman and Gell-Mann actually derived it from first principals.5 But none of this material is described in an intelligible fashion.

Now for the interesting part of the book, the information about Feynman's private life. My remarks following are based entirely on the information provided by Mehra (I met Feynman myself only briefly, at APS meetings.) 6 So I am speaking below not about Richard Feynman but about Mehra's picture of Feynman (abbreviated as MPOF).

Actually Feynman, especially in Surely you're joking…is quite frank about his chasing of tail. Mehra plays down this Don Juanism, life, referring rather to MPOF's attraction to good-looking women. (Some of MPOF's activities at Cornell vis-à-vis undergraduate women, as described on page 170, might well get him prosecuted for sexual harassment today.) Mehra actually speaks in an admiring, hero-worshipping, manner about other of MPOF's traits, which I personally find unsavory. These include, for example, MPOF's aversion to culture and the arts.7 This is related to his decision to leave Cornell for Cal Tech because he objected to the humanities as well as such majors as animal husbandry, home economics and hotel management being taught at Cornell. He did not consider any of them "intellectual pursuits." He even referred to his fellow faculty members in non-physics areas as "dopy." This arrogant intolerance towards other disciplines is all-too-common in physics circles, but in MPOF it met its apotheosis. Throughout the book his hostility to everything in the world besides science (primarily physics) is made quite evident.

One major animus of his was toward psychiatry. MPOF is quoted, on page 543, as being opposed to "superstition, magic, witch doctors, UFO's, ESP, and psychology and psychiatry," and was heard to repeat the trite statement that "anyone who wants to visit a psychiatrist should have his head examined." This is a gratuitous insult to anyone who has ever suffered mental disease (for example, John Nash); refusal to consider mental illness a disease is a mark of ignorance. (Imagine that MPOF had refused to deem colorectal disease a true illness, and had remarked "anyone who wants to visit a proctologist has his head up his ass.") One doesn't have to be a trained psychologist to guess that MPOF had to be nervous about his own mental health!

MPOF did have a few other interests besides physics. One of these was playing the bongo drums. Another was picking up girls. His third wife, Gweneth, was a pickup on a beach near Geneva whom he persuaded to come to live with him in Pasadena. Apparently she didn't satisfy his animal needs, since after marrying her (finally) he spent five or six nights a week in nude bars looking at the naked waitresses.8 In addition he drew sketches to be displayed in a massage parlor! How intellectual are those pursuits?

MPOF apparently had a life-long hatred of authority, which led him to behave in amanner his second wife, Mary Lou, considered "undignified;"9 she divorced him in 1956. One of his Cal Tech colleagues is quoted as saying (page 590) "Mary Lou antagonized everybody: everybody was relieved when Feynman divorced her," but my recollection is that she divorced him.10 Well, the fact of the matter is that MPOF was undignified (is it dignified to spend five or six evenings a week in a nude bar?) and by my lights Mary Lou was quite justified in objecting to his conduct. The same colleague also said, "Feynman never wore a jacket and tie." I guess that depends on one's definition of "never" since there is are several pictures of Feynman in jacket and tie in the book--on the front cover, for example, as well as in the photograph collection between pages 320 and 321.

MPOF's apparent anxiety to make as statement about his supposed superior status led him to refuse all offers of honorary degrees. (Sec. 26.3). He considered them to be a "debasement of the idea of a degree;" thereby he insulted all of the distinguished scholars who have been offered, and accepted, such degrees. (These include Mstislav Rostropovich who, according to the April 22-29 New Yorker, has received 50. But then Feynman, with his disdain for culture in general and classical music in particular, would have looked down on Rostropovich if, indeed, he had ever heard of him!)

We learn (page 574) that MPOF even wanted to refuse the Nobel Prize, but changed his mind when a reporter from Time magazine told him there was no way he could do so without making a big fuss. One wonders--just the previous year (1964) Jean-paul Sartre had refused the literature Prize, so the precedent had already been set. If Feynman really had wanted to refuse the Prize, I would think he could have and would have. (But there is no possibility that Feynman's idea was inspired by Sartre, an existentialist philosopher; cf. endnote 7.)

There's a lot more that could be said about this book, but I think that by now I've made my point. To summarize, the book is badly written; the technical material is largely incoherently presented; but the insights into MPOF's life might make it worth reading, if you want to learn more about this arrogant, egocentric man who was, by any measure, one of the great scientists of the 20th century.11 It is a real pity that the Feynman's scientific work wasn't described better. In my own opinion only Einstein and Feynman among 20th century physicists can legitimately be called geniuses. Only they introduced radically new insights into physics which completely changed our ways of looking at the world around us. Other famous physicists of that era (like Eugene Wigner) did great things without, however, fundamentally changing mankind's view of nature.

ENDNOTES

1. Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman! Norton, New York, 1985 and What do you care what other people think? Norton, 1988.

2. Both pieces of research were published in Physical Review in 1939. The paper on molecular forces actually attracted a lot of attention in physical chemistry circles.

3. Silvan S. Schweber, QED and the men who made it: Dyson, Feynman, Schwinger and Tomonaga.

Princeton Univ. Press, 1994. The advantage of this book over the original papers is that the workof the many physicists (both theoretical and experimental) who created the field is set into historical context.

4. Feynman deduced that nucleons must contain point particles (from deep inelastic scattering experiments carried out at SLAC). Feynman's scorn of "pure mathematics" let him down here. If he had had the knowledge of group theory possessed by Murray Gell-Mann then he and not Gell-Mann might have come up with the "Eight-Fold Way" i.e. the quark model. This might have led to his second physics Nobel Prize; he would have shared with William Bardeen the honor of two physics prizes. (Marie Curie won the Prize in physics and chemistry and Linus Pauling won the chemistry and peace Prizes.) Interestingly enough, we learn on page 52 that Feynman began learning quantum mechanics from Pauling and Wilson's book on quantum mechanics. (Linus Pauling and E. Bright Wilson, Jr., Introduction to Quantum Mechanics, McGraw-Hill, 1935.) About ten years later I took my first quantum mechanics course, using the same book. E. Bright Wilson, Jr., a distinguished physical chemist at Harvard, never won a Nobel Prize, but his son, Kenneth G. Wilson, won the physics Prize in 1982. Pauling, by the way, was present at the famous Shelter Island conference in June, 1947 where QED got jump started. (Sec. 11.7)

5. I feel nervous about making this statement since (the late) Bob Marshak was a good friend of mine, andI know, like and respect, George Sudarshan. However, I believe that a perusal of the relevant papers will bear out my contention.

6. I have to say that Feynman was one of the least "puffed up" persons I have ever met. He used to come to the session of 10-minute papers at the APS meetings, even on Saturday mornings, and engage in spirited technical discussions with the (mostly graduate student) presenters.  

7. Feynman claimed that "Philosophy is 'b.s.'" Robert P. Laglands, Notices AMS 49, Number 5, 558, May, 2002.


8. The author euphemistically refers to it as a "topless bar" (p. 583) but take my word for it, the waitresses
were bottomless as well. 9. To quote Feynman (p. 87): "I had the problem that I had no respect for reputation or authority, something my father taught me."

10. The divorce was reported in a New York Times story which quoted Mary Lou as testifying that her husband never talked to her but spent all his time doing "calculus problems" in his head.

11. But why waste your time reading an amateurish book? Who cares about Feynman's private life anyway? If you are just itching to read a biography of a genius let me suggest three that are well worth your time: Abraham Pais' biography of Albert Einstein, Subtle is the Lord; Sylvia Nassar's. biography of John Nash, A Beautiful Mind (reviewed in TTSP 28, 315-321, 1999); and Savage Beauty, a biography of Edna St. Vincent Millay by Nancy Milford. Or you could decide to burn your candle at both ends by reading all three!