From Manhattan to Shangri-La
Frank McLynn explains the challenging career of a maverick
Saturday 12 April 1997
Richard Feynman (1918-88) was to the second half of the century what Einstein was to the first: the perfect example of scientific genius. He is best known for his solution to the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in 1986. Feynman discovered that the rubber seals on the solid fuel booster rockets leaked in conditions of extreme cold, thus releasing combustible liquid. Even worse, NASA's engineers had detected this fault but had been gagged by a cynical management, content to play Russian roulette with safety.
Such were the political pressures to find that the Challenger debacle had been an accident that Feynman had to struggle to get his views into the final report of the commission of enquiry. His appendix concludes that: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for Nature cannot be fooled."
Feynman's solution was impressive on two counts. He was already seriously ill with cancer when he agreed to serve on the commission, and he was in his 68th year, or some 40 years past what is usually considered a great physicist's sell-by date. His undisputed claim to genius rests not just on the staggering originality he brought to scientific problems, but on his sustained versatility over decades.
Feynman was a leading light on the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb in 1943-45; he won the 1965 Nobel Prize for his work on radiation theory; he pioneered the complex theory of weak nuclear force. He also revolutionised the study of quantum mechanics and worked out a new approach (quantum electrodynamics) that provided a model for the interaction of particles and their movement from one space-time point-instant to another. He developed the theory of superfluidity in liquid helium; he demonstrated that the proton and the neutron were not elementary particles but were composed of more basic elements known as quarks and, in his fifties, he revolutionised the study of computers by his demonstration of parallel processing.
As a private personality, Feynman was a hedonist who liked to play bongos and frequent nightclubs. He was a lecturer of genius, with a decided taste for the gallery touch. In his later life he became obsessed with the Soviet republic of Tuva in Siberia, which figured in his imagination as an invented Shangri-La; he made it his lifetime's ambition to go there. But those where the days when Reagan had decreed that the Soviet Union was the evil empire. Years dragged by as Feynman's request was processed through the labyrinthine Soviet bureaucracy.
Finally, an official invitation arrived in California from the Soviet Academy of Sciences - four days after his death. Like Moses with the promised land, Feynman never got to Tuva. The project was fulfilled by the Joshua of the piece, Feynman's friend Ralph Leighton.
The salient elements in Feynman's life are well known. It cannot be said that the Gribbins add anything to our knowledge, and in many respects their lacklustre account serves to diminish his stature. They are absurdly prissy about Feynman's notorious womanising which, in their account, becomes "enjoying the company of pretty girls", as if he were a stage-struck sophomore instead of a fairly ruthless man of the world. Their disastrous decision to alternate chapters on pure science with thumbnail sketches of their hero comes across as the merest amateurism - an impression not diluted by the Janet-and-John flavour of some of the scientific explication. The irony is that their "simple" explanations are not that good; Thomas Powers' biography of Heisenberg unravels the theory of nuclear fission more lucidly.
There is one good anecdote. Feynman hated all forms of pretension and detested the self-satisfied elitism of the IQ cultist group, Mensa. When asked to join Mensa he replied that he was not intelligent enough; apparently, at school his IQ had been assessed at 124. If that piece of evidence is not enough to finish off Hans Eysenck and his IQ buffs, nothing ever will.
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