Thursday, August 24, 2006

Leonard Mlodinow, Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life, 2003.

My father loaned me this series of reflections by a postdoc student at Caltech about his time there, and in particular, his interactions with Richard Feynman. It was a decent read: Mlodinow writes about feeling inadequate and unworthy of the fellowship he held, and of his desperate search for a research topic that would interest him and let him play the academic game.

He describes the culture of the Caltech physics department, and the Gell-Mann and Feynman camps: the fiercely protective secretary, the other postdocs, the difference in habits of dress and of dining. It's more of a mise en scène piece than a story or a memoir.

I found the transcripts of conversations with Feynman interesting but unexciting. There's nothing startlingly new, and nothing I'd feel sorry had I not read. What the conversations reveal about Feynman is much of what the cult that thinks so highly of him (of which cult I am a member): a deep and grounded wisdom, a narrow focus on problems that excite him, and a desire to be challenged. The book does to a better job of not being hagiographical than do things like Gleick's biography and much of the other writing; the irascible side of Feynman feels integral, and not highlighted nor diminished.

I enjoyed reading the book, but I'm glad it was loaned to me rather than me having purchased it. I really would like to get better at this frugal reading thing.