Dr. Fred Bortz

Review of Feynman's Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life

by Leonard Mlodinow

(Warner, $21.00, 176 pages, May 2003)


Reviewed by Dr. Fred Bortz

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On a damp spring afternoon in 1982 on the Caltech campus, Leonard Mlodinow saw his opportunity. In an encounter that gives this book its title, he spotted legendary physics professor Richard Feynman near the physics building, gazing at a rainbow.

A few days earlier, he had left Feynman's office feeling "like a little kid who had just been scolded by his dad." He had been floundering since his arrival the previous fall, unable to come up with a suitable research question to follow his acclaimed Ph.D. work at Berkeley. So he asked Feynman for his opinion about string theory.

"Look,..." said Feynman, dismissing his young colleague. "If you really believed in string theory, you wouldn't come here asking me. You'd come here telling me."

Now the rainbow offered both men a chance to reopen the conversation. Noting that Descartes was the first scientist to explain rainbows, Feynman asked, "And what do you think was the salient feature of the rainbow that inspired Descartes' mathematical analysis?"

The younger man responded in scientific language, but Feynman was looking for something else. "You're overlooking a key feature of the phenomenon," he explained. "I would say that his inspiration was that he thought rainbows were beautiful."

Feynman's Rainbow is a very unusual memoir of a very unusual author's revealing encounters with a very human legend. When Leonard Mlodinow arrived at Caltech, he felt like an impostor in awe of his surroundings. His office was next door to one Nobel laureate, Murray Gell-Mann, whose theory brought order to the array of subatomic particles, and down the hall from another, Feynman, whose writings inspired him to pursue physics instead of mathematics or chemistry.

He went to Feynman with questions about physics and building a career, but he came away with something far more valuable -- insights into how a person builds a life. He learned the culture of science from an iconoclast, its rules from an anarchist, and its values from a man who would cut short any discussion tainted with even a whiff of philosophy or psychology.

And Dr. Mlodinow discovered that academic stardom and research physics were not where he should be heading. "Through Feynman, I saw another possibility..., satisfaction in discovery... even if what you discover was already known by others." His path to discovery lay not in research but in writing, and he has followed it to write a critically acclaimed history of geometry, Euclid's Window, and numerous scripts for television programs, including Star Trek: The Next Generation.

He left Caltech with the hope "that maybe someday I'd write something that Feynman would admire... no, even better,... that I would admire." Feynman might remind him that like a rainbow, no two people see exactly the same light in a good book like this one. Every reader discovers its beauty from an individual perspective -- and that's something anyone can admire!

Physicist and children's science author Fred Bortz searches for beauty in science and life from his home in Western Pennsylvania.