Book Review: Feynman’s Rainbow

Richard Feynman is one of those scientists so successful that he’s crossed over into the public imagination, joining the canonical image of The Scientist along with other luminaries like Marie Curie and Albert Einstein.  (Oddly, most of the famous scientific characters of the last hundred and fifty years or so are physicists). His memoir, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman , is a humorous bestseller and highly recommended around these parts. So when I saw that he was the star of someone else’s memoir as well, I snapped it up.  In Feynman’s Rainbow, Leonard Mlodinow, a science writer and professor, recollects his year as a post-doctoral fellow at CalTech and the influence Feynman had on him.

This isn’t a story about physics. This is a story about life as a young physicist.  You might imagine the two would be inseparable, but at the time he chronicles, Mlodinow was between projects, more auditioning new research topics than thinking deeply about them. You get the sense that in the time You get the impression that Mlodinow did no theoretical physics at all in the time he chronicles, because the thinking (in contrast to the fretting-about-what-to-think-about) is given such short shrift.

The central question for our narrator is, what is most worth doing in this life?  This is also, of course, the fundamental question of reaching adulthood. He has it narrowed down to research in physics, which he defends convincingly as both fundamental to the universe and fun to do.  But now that he must decide, without the help of a professor in loco parentis, what in the vast universe of unsolved physics questions is the most salient, he is at sea.

He is not a conventional post-doc. While his peers are balancing teaching loads with rising-star research careers (names you’ve heard before, like Stephen Wolfram’s, drop casually in and out of the narrative), Mlodinow is still fumbling for a research topic that truly matters and, with growing desperation, smoking dope and getting drunk with his buddy Ray. This not the kind of career story that you expect will end well.

But at his university, among the gunners and the big names, is the biggest name of all to Mlodinow: Richard Feynman, now some decades past the Manhattan Project, but before the time of the Challenger explosion and that greatest of scientific anecdotes, the O-ring in the ice water.  Though he’s slowly losing a battle with cancer, this Feynman retains a lot of his famous pep. This comes in handy when our hero tries to draft the older professor as his mentor and career guide, a role he is reluctant to step into. Mlodinow wants Feynman’s advice on choosing a problem, building a career, and life in physics; if the memoir’s Feynman escapes the template of personal self-help guru for the young scientist, it is in large part because of cranky things the real man said about not existing to help whippersnappers with their personal crises.

The book quotes extensively Feynman’s actual words–recorded, fortuitously, in a move of great chutzpah that I could never have pulled off, but that also reflects how Mlodinow felt about the older physicist even then. More than Mlodinow’s own text, these transcripts reveal the wise teacher as another fallible human being. One quote that particularly made me wince, in the context of a book about young scientists:

 Women have had a great influence on me and have made me into the better person that I am today.  They represent the emotional side of life.  And I realize that that too is very important.

Thanks, bro.  I submit that respecting the intellectual capacity of your fellow human beings, too, is very important.

The memoir’s style is often white bread and matter of fact. Don’t ask a physicist for poetry, and you won’t be disappointed. He tries to keep the text accessible to non-specialist readers, which is very much in the spirit of Feynman’s own writing style; the problem is that he has less of a gift for conveying the excitement of a problem (and his own interest in it) without giving specifics.  I look forward to reading his more science-focused books, The Drunkard’s Walk and several collaborations with Stephen Hawking, to see whether his style is different when he’s talking about physical rather than emotional matters.

But there are also gems, moments when you realize why Mlodinow found Feynman so inspiring, and why he would write a book dedicated to imparting a sense of Feynman’s worldview:

 ‘Do you know who first explained the true origin of the rainbow?’ I asked.

‘It was Descartes,’ he said.  After a moment he looked me in the eye.

‘And what do you think was the salient feature of the rainbow that inspired Descartes’ mathematical analysis?’ he asked.

‘Well, the rainbow is actually a section of a cone that appears as an arc of the colors of the spectrum when drops of water are illuminated by sunlight behind the observer.’

‘And?’

‘I suppose his inspiration was the realization that the problem could be analyzed by considering a single drop, and the geometry of the situation.’

‘You’re overlooking a key feature of the phenomenon,’ he said.

‘Okay, I give up. What would you say inspired his theory?’

‘I would say his inspiration was that he thought rainbows were beautiful.’

What Mlodinow, channeling Feynman, has to offer is not career advice in the usual sense.  On the other hand, he gives something more durable: a parable about how he learned to feel worthy of academia and also realized it was not everything, a story of how to learn about and trust oneself. I’d recommend the book in particular to people who are starting their science careers–like I am. It’s Hallmark inspirational, coupled with a reminder that most of us feel like impostors at one point or another, even physicists who go on to list Stephen Hawking as a co-author.  Mlodinow made it; we can do this.

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