Book 172: Genius by James Gleick


Genius by James Gleick

Finished reading on May 21st, 2015

Rating: 9/10

Richard Feynman is a name that you might most likely have heard if you’re a fan of The Big Bang Theory or if you’ve taken a course in particle physics. I can make checks in both 🙂
“Genius” is one of several biographies of Feynman, who seems to me as the best example of a misunderstood genius, despite being highly acclaimed and having gotten a Nobel prize in physics.

I picked this book up quite soon after reading his correspondence, and as I’ve read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” last year, most of it didn’t seem new, but it was still interesting and it gave a better idea of Richard Feynman as a person, and it was the first time I could actually read about his contributions to physics.

The thing that strikes me the most about Feynman, was the way he worked – not reading the new paper in physics fully, but only until he got an idea of the problem and then trying to solve it himself and spending a lot of time on questions that he never published anything about, although many others would have. That’s just curious. The first explains his great grasp of physics, the second is just a mystery to me, as in my imagination you’d try to publish any significant results. Maybe that’s just it though- he probably didn’t see it as significant enough or as not a big enough contribution?

The book did change my opinion of Feynman in some ways, as previously I had seen him as an ingenious joker, and now I’m not so sure, as it all seems quite tragic.

I did like that you do see quite a lot of his contemporary physicists, so you won’t get the idea that he was the only one working on it, but you see it as everyone contributing something – some more, some less, and find out about their relationships, and you see Murray Gell-Mann, Julian Schwinger and Freeman Dyson appear in the story – it brings Feynman out of vacuum and gives a broader view of everything.

I feel like there’s no reason for me to actually do a short overview of Feynman’s life, as that’s what Wikipedia is for. Rather I’d just say that if you’ve enjoyed stories about Feynman, this biography might be enjoyable, and if you’re studying physics, it’s also quite motivational. I dare you to start reading this and not want to pick up a physics textbook!

Also, I’d really recommend reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman” before this one.

Book 44: The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo


The Strangest Man by Graham Farmelo

Finished reading May 25, 2013

Rating 9/10

It seems as if I’ve had this book for ages and only now I’ve managed to read it. I got it at the height of my interest in 20th century physicists. For some reason I only got as far as about 100 pages on my first try and after that it was trapped next to one of my biggest fears in my bookcase – “American Prometheus” by K. Bird and M.J. Sherwin. It is literally the biggest with ca 600 pages about Robert J. Oppenheimer and ca 100 more with notes etc…

Back to the book at hand.

The Strangest Man probably got it’s title from something that the famous physicist Niels Bohr once said about Paul Dirac, whose biography this book is, namely that Dirac was the strangest man he knew.

Probably to most people the name Paul Dirac says very little. Not so with physicists – the Dirac equation is one of the things already undergraduate physics students have to wrestle with. In this book there’s all the background for it, and even more – it almost seems to chronicle the beginning of quantum mechanics, it’s not just about Dirac, you also get a glimpse into the lives of the other famous quantum physicists – Wolfgang Pauli, Werner Heisenberg, Erwin Schrödinger, etc.

If the former wasn’t successful in scaring you away from reading that book, then good! Because it does have some physics, but no equations, and you can follow mostly everything without knowing anything about quantum physics beforehand, it’s more history of one man behind it.

But now to the exciting part – why would the Nobel laureate Bohr think Dirac so strange? Well there were many great examples for what might make Dirac seem strange: he was very quiet and shy (but that’s usual), very literally minded, wanted to refuse his Nobel prize in physics because he didn’t like publicity and attention, but was persuaded that his refusal would get him even more attention. And if you’re ever asked do you know of a physicist who bought a baby alligator and sent it to his colleague, then it was Dirac, who sent it to George Gamow (Gamow’s wife opened the package and got bitten).

Book 27: Galileo by J. L. Heilbron


Galileo by j.L. Heilbron

Finished reading 10.01.2013

Rating 9/10

Until I started reading this book I thought that Galileo was the guy who dropped cannon balls down from the Tower of Pisa and ended up blind and in house arrest. That was the baseline.

Now, having read Heilbron’s book, Galileo seems like an actual person who lived some 400 years ago. Yes, I knew he existed before, but reading ca 350 pages about someone occasionally makes them seem more real.

Heilbron’s “Galileo” gives a very good overview of the kind of person Galileo was – apparently some-what arrogant and a bit too fond of wine, but a real scientist, not just a philosopher (I don’t have anything against philosophers, unless they’re electrically charged).

Probably all books about the history of astronomy have Galileo in them, thus making it seem a little awkward how illuminating Heilbron’s book seemed to me, not because of finding out some important aspects of Galileo’s life, but rather for showing some of the reasons why the Copernican model of the Solar system didn’t take hold until a lot later in history.

But also the way that Galileo himself wrote about astronomy and mechanics is rather amusing and witty and so is Heilbron’s writing.

I really loved this book.

Book 15: Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane

Riding Rockets by Mike Mullane (Scribner, 2007)

Finished reading November 13, 2012

Rating 9/10

I started reading it in bouts in the end of last week while watching several sci-fi movies. I took this book up because in Mary Roach’s “Packing for Mars”, she writes that if you only ever read one astronaut’s biography, then this one should be it.

I’m not sure yet, whether this would be the definitive astronaut’s biography, but I’ll know that when I read something by other astronauts. However I think it is a truly great book. And it might be the characteristic space shuttle astronaut’s story. I just loved it. It’s funny and serious and exciting from the beginning to the end.

Plus it gives a good idea of what the astronauts have had to suffer to get into space. It covers the astronauts selection process from the candidates’ point of view, there’s Mullane’s childhood and how he became an astronaut. He flew on three shuttle flights. The most exciting part for me was the description of the first launch of Discovery… or well tries to launch Discovery – they aborted a few times.

You can also read about the Challenger’s last flight.

In general I think it might have a bad effect on some people – they’d want to become astronauts themselves.

While I’m not yet in that kind of danger – I’d rather wait until they start the space elevator business, I really found Mullane’s description of the shuttle’s descent a bit worrying and I don’t think that coming back down in a capsule sounds any better… so spend my whole life in orbit or wait? I’ll have to settle for the last one for now. Especially since there aren’t  space shuttle flights anymore. 😦

It was a bit like reading Robert Scott’s diary or about Amundsen going to the South Pole – it’s something that puts everything in a human to an extreme test – the motivation, strength, skill, health. I used to be obsessed about expeditions to the South Pole,  space expeditions are just one (small) step further.

And a talk by Mike Mullane :