27 March 2008

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! -- Richard P. Feynman

So I guess I am reading biographies right now, but this was a really good one. I had always been meaning to read it, but I am glad in one sense that I waited until now. At least when he was talking about the ants in his Princeton room during grad school I could look at the ants in my Princeton room during grad school and it was kind of cool.

The first few chapters had me somewhat disappointed. I was not laughing out loud. His writing style was not at all what I expected. The stories didn't really grab me too much. But I am really glad I kept reading. As the book went on, I was thoroughly delighted with what I found. His stories are actually very funny at times but also gave insight into someone I think I could have really gotten along with. For example, when he talks about how he talked to Bohr and about why he stayed at Caltech, I could relate in my own way. Obviously in a much more limited and smaller way, but still it felt good. Even though I have not accomplished what he has nor do I feel I am at the same level intelligence right now, it is still refreshing to read the thoughts and anecdotes of someone you relate to on many levels.

I highly recommend this book for several reasons. To the scientist, this is a rare opportunity into the mind of a great one. To the non-scientist, this is a chance to see what science is about and that not all scientists are hiding in labs with thick glasses and no personality. The book is informative as much as it is funny, and it gets funnier as you go on. Additionally, it reads very quickly and because it gets harder and harder to put down as you go along, you find yourself very quickly on the last section and not wanting it to end.

20 March 2008

American Prometheus -- Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin

I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in the history of 20th century physics as well as the life of Robert Oppenheimer. This book also gives great insight into many of the interesting themes in America during the cold war. This reaches a climax with Dr. Oppenheimer's security hearing in 1954. It is actually difficult to talk about this book besides that it was highly informative and entertaining.

The fact that this man actually lived the life detailed in this book is amazing. His life reads more like some fantastic movie that is too improbable to be believable. I mean he was quintessential in the creation of the atomic bomb and the creation of one of the greatest theoretical physics departments in the world; and all the while the FBI had him under illegal surveillance. Just the names who he worked with are in themselves impressive: Bohr, Heisenberg, Feynman, Lawrence, Einstein, von Neumann, and the list goes on and on.

This book does not simply derive its value from the incredible highs and lows of Oppenheimer's life. Additionally, the extremely detailed and thorough scholarship and research that was put into this book makes history truly come alive. As objective as a biography can be and as well written as one could hope for. Once again, highly recommended.