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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > May-June 2005 > Bookshelf Detail

BOOK REVIEW

The One and Only, an Excerpt from A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit

Richard Feynman was the Michael Jordan of physics. His intellectual leaps, seemingly weightless, defied explanation. One of his teammates on the high-school math team in Far Rockaway, Long Island, recalls that Feynman "would get this unstudied insight while the problem was still being read out, and his opponents, before they could begin to compute, would see him ostentatiously write down a single number and draw a circle around it. Then he would let out a loud sigh." At twenty-three, he amazed a Princeton colleague when he worked out at the blackboard a proof of an important proposition of physics that had been only loosely conjectured eight years earlier by the Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac. In 1960, in his early forties, restless and unable to find a physics problem worth working on, Feynman taught himself enough biology to make an original discovery of how mutations work in genes.

Feynman rarely read the scientific literature. When he did, he would read only far enough into an article to see what the problem was, fold up the journal, and then derive the results on his own. When a colleague, after perhaps months of calculations, walked into Feynman's office with a new result, he would often discover that Feynman already knew not only that result, but a more sweeping one, which he had kept in his file drawer and regarded as not worth publishing. The mathematician Mark Kac has said that "there are two kinds of geniuses, the ordinary and the magicians. An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better." But for the second kind, "even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. . . ." He called Feynman "a magician of the highest caliber."

A Sense of the Mysterious: Science and the Human Spirit
Alan Lightman
Pantheon Books
$23.

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