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
'Banksy Does New York' Film - 2014

Art Somebody is going around telling people he's Banksy - but it isn't the street artist

Arts and Entertainment
Woody Allen and Placido Domingo will work together on Puccini's Schicchi

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
The sixteen celebrities taking part in The Jump 2015

TV

Arts and Entertainment
British author Helen Macdonald, pictured with Costa book of the year, 'H is for Hawk'
booksPanel hail Helen Macdonald's 'brilliantly written, muscular prose' in memoir of a grief-stricken daughter who became obsessed with training a goshawk
Arts and Entertainment
Tom DeLonge has announced his departure from Blink-182

music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
In the picture: Anthony LaPaglia and Martin Freeman in 'The Eichmann Show'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Kirkbride and Bill Roache as Deirdre and Ken Barlow in Coronation Street

tvThe actress has died aged 60
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Marianne Jean-Baptiste defends Joe Miller in Broadchurch series two

tv
Arts and Entertainment
The frill of it all: Hattie Morahan in 'The Changeling'

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny may reunite for The X Files

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
TV
News
A young woman punched a police officer after attending a gig by US rapper Snoop Dogg
people
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Greece elections: In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza

    Greece elections

    In times like these, the EU has far more dangerous adversaries than Syriza, says Patrick Cockburn
    Holocaust Memorial Day: Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears

    Holocaust Memorial Day

    Nazi victims remembered as spectre of prejudice reappears over Europe
    Fortitude and the Arctic attraction: Our fascination with the last great wilderness

    Magnetic north

    The Arctic has always exerted a pull, from Greek myth to new thriller Fortitude. Gerard Gilbert considers what's behind our fascination with the last great wilderness
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Homeless in Wales can find inspiration from Daniel’s story
    Front National family feud? Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks

    Front National family feud?

    Marine Le Pen and her relatives clash over French far-right party's response to Paris terror attacks
    Pot of gold: tasting the world’s most expensive tea

    Pot of gold

    Tasting the world’s most expensive tea
    10 best wildlife-watching experiences: From hen harriers to porpoises

    From hen harriers to porpoises: 10 best wildlife-watching experiences

    While many of Britain's birds have flown south for the winter, it's still a great time to get outside for a spot of twitching
    Nick Easter: 'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    'I don’t want just to hold tackle bags, I want to be out there'

    Nick Easter targeting World Cup place after England recall
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore