The Smartest Guys In The Room

The Life and Science of Richard Feynman
By James Gleick
Pantheon, 531 pp.

By Norman Macrae
Pantheon, 405 pp.

Thinking caps on, gentle readers. We begin with a puzzler: Two bicyclists, 20 km apart, start toward one another at 10 km/hr. At that same moment, a fly leaves the front wheel of one bike and heads toward the other at a steady 15 km/hr. When it lands on the front wheel of the second bike, it instantly turns around and flies back. When it touches the first bike, it again immediately reverses course. What is the total distance covered by the fly before it is squashed between the colliding bicycle wheels?

It’s no accident that both Norman Macrae’s biography of Johnny Von Neumann and James Gleick’s of Dick Feynman recount this problem early in their first chapters (Gleick’s version involves a hat dropped overboard into a flowing river, but the principle is the same). It’s a small illustration of how these two staggering minds worked, and an indispensable one. For those of us who never got beyond elementary calculus, it may be the last of the math in either volume that we truly understand.

The long way to the right answer is to dutifully work out the distance the fly covers in its first trip, its second, and so on, and then to calculate the sum of the infinite series. Presented with the problem in high school, Feynman saw through it in a flash: since the bikes will collide in exactly an hour, and since the fly is moving at 15 km/hr, it must travel a total of 15 km.

Confronted with the same question at a cocktail party, the adult Von Neumann also produced the correct answer. The difference was that Von Neumann didn’t immediately spot the trick. He didn’t have to. He simply summed up the infinite series mentally, effortlessly and instantly.

As a group, theoretical mathematicians and physicists are competitive and ferociously bright, and they don’t much care for the word “genius” – to them, it’s a slack-jawed epithet favoured by reporters and other species of ignoramus. But even the giants of mid-20th century science – I.I. Rabi and Eugene Wigner, Hans Bethe and Leo Szilard, Freeman Dyson and Murray Gell-Mann – recognized that there was something seemingly superhuman about Feynman and Von Neumann.

They both routinely solved problems that had baffled the finest of minds. Over and over again, their insights were like starburst shells, illuminating whole vistas for those who followed. While other minds toiled within disciplinary boundaries – it was all one could do to master the increasing arcana of one’s own field, never mind the others – Feynman and Von Neumann soared overhead in an airspace of their own.

In the realm where numbers and ideas and reality become indistinguishable, these two brains were the closest thing to universal calculators the century has seen. Indeed, the computer was made in Von Neumann’s image, because it was he, more than anyone else, who laid down its logical architecture. He also invented game theory and made fundamental contributions to mathematics, quantum physics, economics and meteorology. For his part, Feynman left his fingerprints in virtually all the crannies of subatomic physics, but also in gravitation theory, superfluidity, even molecular genetics.

Given their similarities, and the parallels in their careers, it’s odd that neither one looms large in the other’s biography. In 1941, Von Neumann, 38 and already a legend, was present – along with Wolfgang Pauli and Albert Einstein – at the first seminar paper delivered by Feynman, the 23-year-old Princeton graduate student. Within three years they would both be working at Los Alamos on the atom bomb.

They liked one another, the Hungarian Jewish immigrant who’d converted to Christianity and the New York Jew who was uninterested in religion. They shared a sense of the impish and a taste for yarns and blue jokes. After Feynman’s first wife, Arline, died of tuberculosis in 1945, it was Von Neumann who let the Feynman family know that the son and brother they had not seen for years was coming home.

Still, while their jet plumes may have intersected, they never worked on the same specific problem simultaneously, and by 1957 Von Neumann was dead, felled by a cancer that may have come from his presence at the Bikini nuclear tests in 1946. Feynman would live until 1988, he too eventually a victim of cancer.

In manner, however, the two men couldn’t have been more different. Von Neumann grew up in cultured Budapest and had a fencing master. Feynman was the boy wonder of Far Rockaway, N.Y., who could fix any radio.

In adulthood, Von Neumann was roly-poly and socially gracious. When concentrating, he would fall into a muttering trance like Madame Blavatsky. Feynman, by contrast, looked like Jerry Seinfeld but moved and spoke like Kramer. Once, describing a crucial talk at which he could not get his ideas across, he shrugged: “My machines came from too far away.” Von Neumann taught himself how to speak German and then English; Feynman taught himself how to crack safes and play the bongos.

The Hungarian gentleman had an unnerving habit of staring at women’s legs, but apparently otherwise kept his libido in check. Feynman was a practicing rake; as a young professor at Cornell, he wasn’t above seducing his colleagues’ wives. Gleick includes a picture of him in white tie, a smoke dangling from his lip, at a banquet celebrating his Nobel prize. He looks as though he’s holding court at the Stork Club.

In the fifties, Von Neumann became a senior advisor to the Eisenhower administration and a chief proponent of arm-to-the-teeth nuclear deterrence. In his last year, Feynman was the elder statesman of science who blew the whistle on the shoddiness that led to the Challenger disaster.

Both lives make for fascinating reading, and both biographies make clear the essential decency of each man, warts notwithstanding. Appropriately, too, the books are as different in style as their subjects.

Norman Macrae is English, the recently retired editor of the Economist. James Gleick is 38, American, formerly of the New York Times, and author of the bestselling popular science book, Chaos. Macrae is readable and skilled (although he drops at least one historical clanger: he ascribes the Halifax explosion to German sabotage) but the book has the formality of a bygone era. Gleick’s work crackles with the talent of a storyteller, not simply a gifted lecturer.

But back to the math. In the end, it’s what stymies both biographies. Partons? Path integrals? The ergodic theorem?

Good as Macrae and Gleick are, the machines are still coming from too far away, with all that that

  • Globe and Mail January 23, 1993