A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life
by Leonard Mlodinow
Reviewed September 2, 2003.
Warner Books, New York, 2003. 171 pages.
Available at Sembach Library (B MLO).
A Sonderbooks’ Stand-out of 2003:
#2, Biographical Nonfiction
I discovered this book at the Vogelweh Bookmark store, a place
I should know better than to enter. It somehow got shelved in the
parenting section. It caught my eye, and as soon as I picked it up,
I was enchanted.
The author writes about a time when he had a prestigious post-doctoral
fellowship at Caltech, with his office down the hall from Richard Feynman,
who was dying of cancer. It was a time of serious self-doubt for
Mr. Mlodinow, as he wondered if he really fit among the geniuses there
and searched for a research project that would justify the wonderful opportunity
he had been given.
As he was searching for a research topic and wondering if he had
what it takes, he had some meaningful conversations with Richard Feynman.
As he became more comfortable with him, he asked if he could tape the
conversations, and the transcriptions of some of those conversations
make up much of this book.
The author’s musings about life and about ones calling will appeal
to the same people who enjoy Po Bronson’s What Should I Do With My Life?
I read this one after I had just finished Beyond the Limit,
of the first woman to get a PhD in Math. That first book already
had me thinking about my days in graduate school. I had been in a
PhD program in math at UCLA, but I dropped out and “settled” for a Master’s
I firmly believe that I made the right decision and that I am much
happier as my life turned out than I would have been had I finished
the PhD. However, it’s still fun to muse about “what if” and wonder
how my life would have gone if I had acted differently. Did I quit
because I somehow didn’t have what it takes? If I hadn’t been in
love with Steve, would I have been able to stay focused on Math and stick
with the program? (If so, then that’s one more way Steve has made
my life better!) Did I quit partly because of the daily headaches
I was getting at the time, or did I get the daily headaches because I was
in a program that wasn’t right for me? All these questions are still
fascinating to me, and this book (along with Beyond the Limit
me thinking about them again.
One of the early recorded conversations with Feynman really resonated
with me. He said:
“Really all we do is a hell of a lot more of one particular kind
of thing that is normal and ordinary! People do have imagination,
they just don’t work on it as long. Creativity is done by everybody,
it’s just that scientists do more of it. What isn’t ordinary is
to do it so intensively that all this experience is piled up for all
these years on the same limited subject.
“A scientist’s work is normal activities of humans carried out
to a fault, in a very exaggerated form. Ordinary people don’t do
it as often, or, as I do, think about the same problem every day.
Only idiots like me do that! Or Darwin, or somebody who worries
about the same question, ‘Where do the animals come from?’ Or, ‘What
is the relation of species?’ A scientist works on it, and thinks
about it for years! What I do is something that common people can
often do, but so much more that it looks crazy.”
In another section:
“An important part of the creative process is play. At least
for some scientists. It is hard to maintain as you get older.
You get less playful. But you shouldn’t, of course.”
This got me thinking about obsessions. Besides the book about
Sofya Kovalevskaya, I was reading another book about great mathematicians
Are People, Too!
) and one thing the great mathematicians had in common
was that they all seemed to be obsessed with mathematics.
So did I quit math because I wasn’t obsessed enough with mathematics?
No, I don’t think that’s quite it. I did, occasionally, get obsessed
with math. Soon after I finished this book I got an idea for a
sweater to knit that would show a color-coded chart of the prime factorization
of all the numbers from 1 to 100. I sat down and spent hours charting
it out and creating a swatch. If that isn’t obsession, I don’t
know what is.
I think that all people have obsessions. Only watch a kid
playing video games! Perhaps the geniuses had the gift that their
obsessions happened to fit a niche that would make them famous.
It’s another gift when your obsession fits your job. I have
another strange obsession with buying books, and that means I can get
great joy and satisfaction out of the regular requirements of my job, and
get a nice high every time a big box of new books comes in or every time
I place an order.
I’ve also found that reading books and writing book reviews is
an obsession. I don’t have to force myself to write them, like
I have to force myself to write when I’m trying to write a book.
Does that mean I should give up the idea of writing books and settle for
writing book reviews? I don’t think so. I do think that sort
of thing is bound up in the advice often given writers that you should write
if you “must” write. Again, I think it’s about obsessions and trying
to channel them in productive ways.
didn’t talk about all these ideas,
but it did serve as a springboard for all sorts of musings on my part.
I found it fascinating that Leonard Mlodinow eventually left Caltech and
worked as a writer for Star Trek: The Next Generation.
In the book, he talks about how knowing Feynman, with his spirit of playfulness,
helped him to decide to pursue what gave him satisfaction, rather than
looking for projects that other people would think important or that
would make the most money. It sounds like he is very happy with
his choices, and I think that I am, too.
This is a delightful book. Incidentally, it also gives wonderfully
lucid explanations of some of the physics involved in the research going
on at Caltech at the time. I’m sure that the next time I read it,
it will set off a completely different progression of thoughts.
But it is the sort of book that makes you think.
comment: Jeanne comments that she would definitely recommend
Copyright © 2003 Sondra Eklund.
All rights reserved.
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