Feynman's Rainbow

A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life

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I enjoyed this slim book by Leonard Mlodinow quite a bit. Probably a lot of that is due to some personal factors: I was an undergrad physics major at Caltech way back when, and like most of my peers, was an unabashed Feynman Fanboy. This despite having all three volumes of his big red books as my freshman and sophomore textbooks; this was often painful. I was brave enough to sit next to the man when my house invited him for dinner, and I even asked him a (in retrospect, stupid) physics question. Which he answered with far more patience and grace than the question deserved.

I fell off the physics track a few years later, a fortuitous move both for physics and me. But I still plod along with the field at a dilettante level, checking out books written by much smarter people. And I still count myself as a Feynman Fanboy.

This book was published in 2003, but I didn't notice it then. But when I (somehow) became aware of it, I plunked it onto my wanna-read list. And the University Near Here had a copy, so once it re-opened for civilians (long story) I ventured down into the basement stacks and grabbed it.

Mlodinow came to Caltech in the early 80s as a bright young postdoctoral fellow. No teaching duties, and an office in fourth-floor Downs Lab, just down the hall from Feynman's and Murray Gell-Mann's. (Gell-Mann is a supporting character here.) He has a bad case of Imposter Syndrome, very much worried that he doesn't belong with all the smart folks.

At the time, Feynman had been diagnosed with the cancer that would kill him a few years later. But he still comes into work, and he's still approachable. Mlodinow's a fanboy too, and he looks to Feynman for advice on not just mundane physics topics, but on life. He took to recording (with permission) his discussions with the great man, and a number of those are transcribed here, with some Feynmanian opinionizing on the string theory, the relation of theorizing to experimentation, the place of beauty in science, etc. Good stuff.

A lot of anecdotes, many funny, one scary, some revolving around Mlodinow's generous consumption of marijuana with his buddies.

Mlodinow went on to a varied career. He still does physics, writes pop-science books (like this one). But I'm not sure any other physicist could boast a similar IMDB page. (Did you write an episode of Night Court, Kip Thorne?)

Consumer note: A couple of Amazon reviewers note this book was also published under the title Some Time With Feynman, and they're pretty steamed. If you (against all odds) bought that, you might not want to buy this.