The partying, joking genius

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The Independent Culture
WHY ALL the fuss about Albert Einstein's life? For a man who in photographs mostly wears a glum expression and shoes to match, he attracts a lot of attention. In June, some love letters he wrote in 1945 to a Russian spy were auctioned in New York; two years ago, a collection of love (and hate) letters were sold off for about $2m.

Contrast that with the total lack of interest in Richard Feynman, an American physicist who was, just like Einstein, a genius who brought us new ways to view the world. His letters are not auctioned; he was heartbreakingly devoted to his first wife and then - after her death from a lingering illness - to his second. Yet Feynman was also a wild, partying person whose passion for bongo-playing, safe-cracking and topless bars did not prevent him being a key player in the Manhattan Project to build the first atomic bomb.

He died aged 69 in 1988. There was little mystery left about him because he lived life in the open, and loved it. Perhaps that means there's nothing left which could shock - no untold tales, because he told them all while alive. Hence, no auctioned love letters and no Sunday supplement articles.

Yet his contribution to modern physics is arguably as great as that made by Einstein, who led the wider public to an understanding of why atomic bombs make a big mess. Feynman's breakthroughs, though, were in quantum physics, that confusing realm where a thing is both a wave and a particle, or can have no mass at rest yet have measurable momentum (the product of mass and velocity) while moving.

The quantum world can mess up your brain if you fall into it unprepared. Einstein's grumble "God does not play dice" is the classic response to its confusion. Feynman not only handled this world; he added new ways of seeing it, such as the "Feynman diagrams" which gave physicists a whole new way to think about the interactions of particles.

Above all Feynman was a teacher: a working professor at Caltech in California. Lecturing, he was in his element; the New York Times described him as "the impossible combination of theoretical physicist and circus barker, all body motion and sound effects". Happily, many of those lectures were taped and transcribed for posterity. This week marks the publication of a new book of his lectures, and the republication of an older one, but the two are intended to be read together.

The reissue, Six Easy Pieces, is a series of six lectures that Feynman gave, starting in 1961, to first-year physics students at Caltech. They were intended as a taster of the fruits to come. But Six Easy Pieces is accessible to the general reader as a primer on atoms, the relation of physics to other sciences, the concept of conservation of energy, the theory of gravitation,and at the end - briefly - the wave-particle problem, illustrating how it arises and demonstrating how it will not go away.

Six Not-So-Easy Pieces lives up to its name. Most of the science books that nowadays pour off the presses just recycle newspaper articles at tedious length. I reached the end of this one and realised that I had been too sloppy in reading some of the explanations, which meant that later conclusions had whizzed straight past me. I was eager to go back and read it again so that I would understand.

The fact is that Feynman doesn't dumb down. You can feel the intellectual wind whistling through your hair, and it is advisable to hang on tight. But the ride is worth it. The second set of lectures deal first with the issues of symmetry: the universe's tendency to make things match. Then they move on to the special theory of relativity, relativistic energy, space-time and finally curved space, which might be more familiar as the General Theory of Relativity. I have read many books and articles explaining relativity, but Feynman brings new twirls and twists and fascinating insights to the topic.

On the written page, his words can sometimes seem stilted; to reconstitute the Feynman that gave the lectures, you must mentally add arm-waving, enthusiasm and the fact that he sees things from a different view and takes you there, as the best teachers do.

Feynman even manages a swipe at the postmodernists who latched on to the theories of relativity as an excuse to say that it doesn't matter what your opinion is: everything is relative, after all. "We hear that a great deal, but it is difficult to find out what it means," he snorts.

He was resolutely anti-postmodern, yet he altered his pupils' understanding more thoroughly than any cocktail-party philosopher. It's an irony he would have liked.

Charles Arthur