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*****= An all-time favorite
****  = Outstanding
***    = Above average
**      = Enjoyable
*        = Good, with reservations


****Feynman's Rainbow

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, the biography 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 degree. 

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) set 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 (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.

Feynman’s Rainbow 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.

Reader comment:  Jeanne comments that she would definitely recommend this book.

Copyright © 2003 Sondra Eklund.  All rights reserved.

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