From Manhattan to Shangri-La

Frank McLynn explains the challenging career of a maverick

Richard Feynman: a life in science by John and Mary Gribbin, Viking, pounds 18

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.

Arts and Entertainment
Chloe-Jasmine Whicello impressed the judges and the audience at Wembley Arena with a sultry performance
TVReview: Who'd have known Simon was such a Roger Rabbit fan?
News
Rumer was diagnosed with bipolarity, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and post-traumatic stress disorder: 'I was convinced it was a misdiagnosis'
peopleHer debut album caused her post-traumatic stress - how will she cope as she releases her third record?
Arts and Entertainment
Nick Frost will star in the Doctor Who 2014 Christmas special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
TV
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams plays 'bad ass' Arya Stark in Game of Thrones

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Meera Syal was a member of the team that created Goodness Gracious Me

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The former Doctor Who actor is to play a vicar is search of a wife

film
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pointless host Alexander Armstrong will voice Danger Mouse on CBBC

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell dismissed the controversy surrounding

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jack Huston is the new Ben-Hur

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne modelling

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emma Thompson and Bryn Terfel are bringing Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street to the London Coliseum

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Thicke's video for 'Blurred Lines' has been criticised for condoning rape

Robin Thicke admits he didn't write 'Blurred Lines'

music
Arts and Entertainment
While many films were released, few managed to match the success of James Bond blockbuster 'Skyfall'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Damon as Jason Bourne in The Bourne Ultimatum (2007)

film
Arts and Entertainment
Sheridan Smith as Cilla Black

Review: Cilla, ITV TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars with Cillian Murphy in Peaky Blinders II

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

    Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

    Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
    Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

    Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

    The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
    The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

    Scrambled eggs and LSD

    Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
    'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

    'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

    Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
    Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

    New leading ladies of dance fight back

    How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
    Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

    A shot in the dark

    Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
    His life, the universe and everything

    His life, the universe and everything

    New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Save us from small screen superheroes

    Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
    Reach for the skies

    Reach for the skies

    From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
    These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

    12 best hotel spas in the UK

    Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
    These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

    Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

    Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

    Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    How to make a Lego masterpiece

    Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

    Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
    Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

    Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

    His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam