Saturday, September 10, 2011

Lawrence Krauss' "Quantum Man: Richard Feynnman's Life in Science"

This is a good review of "the complete" Richard Feynman. It has better coverage of the science than more popular biographies. It doesn't break any new ground on the personality of Feynman, but that would be hard to do after a half dozen other biographies, especially Feynman's own autobiographical books.

What most impressed me about this book was Krauss' ability to demonstrate the widespread influence of Feynman's work. Sure he got a Nobel prize, but that didn't get the publicity and "public intellectual" stature that a lot of physics "greats" get. Instead, he is known more for his quirky personality. But Krauss takes the effort to show truly how wide and deep the influence of Feynman's work is on modern physics.

This book reinforces, yet again for me, what I like most about Feynman: a great, deep thinker, who remained humble and focused more on the science than on the glory. Too many scientists ascend to positions of "august sage" and produce nothing in their later years. Feynman was working until the day he died still creating interesting new science.

It is hard to pick anything that gives the flavour of Feynman, but I liked this bit from the book talking about Feynman's 1959 lecture to the American Physical Society "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom":
Feynman began his lecture by saying that some people were impressed by a machine that could write the Lord's prayer on the head of a pin. That was nothing. He envisaged first writing the entire Encyclopedia Britannica on the head of a pin. But, he argued, that was nothing, because one could easily do that with regular printing by simply shrinking the area of each dot used in half-tone printing by a factor of 25,000. As he argued, even then each dot would contain about 1,000 atoms. No problem, he imagined.

But even that was timid, he argued. What about writing all of the information in all of the books in the world? He performed an estimate for doing so that is amusingly similar to one that I did when I tried to consider how much information would be required to store a digital copy of someone for transporting, in The Physics of Star Trek. He argued that it would be easy to store one bit of information (that is, a 1 or 0) using, say, a cube of 5 atoms on a side, or a few more than 100 atoms. He also estimated there were about 1015 bits of information in all of the books in the world, which at the time he estimated to be about 24 million volumes. In that case, to store all of the information in all of the books in the world would take merely a cube of material less than one-hundredth of an inch on a side -- as small as the smallest speck of dist to the human eye! Okay, so you get the picture.
Feynman loved to calculate. He was a theorist, but one with an eye for detail and an insistence that theory connect with fact, that until you could calculate specific numbers that matched experiment, you didn't have real science.

The book is well worth taking your time to read. Everybody should get to know one of the great minds of the 20th century.

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