Two lives

Two lives in mathematics and physics are treated in recent books: Feynman, a comic book biography by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick; and The Genius in my Basement: The Biography of a Happy Man by Alexander Masters, a book which aims to capture the essence of Simon Norton by shock tactics rather than a traditional biography.

Anyone who has read Feynman’s books Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman! and What do you care what other people think? will be familiar with the stories told in Feynman. (If you have read them, you don’t need me to describe Feynman to you; if you haven’t, I won’t spoil the surprise.)

I have read these two books, but I also read QED: The Strange Story of Light and Matter, which I thought excellent. Written to convey to an intelligent lay person the ideas behind quantum electrodynamics, it was published just too late, after its intended recipient Alix Mautner died. But it was an exciting experience for me: a lot of things I half understood, including the least time principle, stationary phase, and the two-slit experiment, suddenly fitted together and made some kind of sense. Feynman himself said that nobody understands quantum theory, it is just too weird; but he had a genius for making me (and probably others) think we understand at least part of it.

Ottaviani and Myrick devote 25 pages (one-tenth of the book) to Feynman’s explanation of QED in the Mautner lectures; a good decision, in my view. The argument is geometric, and adapts well to the comic-book format. I think we get closer to Feynman here than in the safe-cracking and drumming episodes.

The story of Feynman’s discovery of QED is also interesting. Coming back to academia after his time in Los Alamos during the war, disillusioned with physics, he decided to abandon his thesis topic and simply have fun. Spinning plates in the cafeteria at Cornell, he noticed that they wobble twice as fast as they spin. So he set out to prove that this is necessarily so; the calculations led him into relativistic electron orbits, the Dirac equation, and so to quantum electrodynamics …

There is more besides, which matters to any working scientist.
On Julian Schwinger, with whom (and Sin-Itro Tomonaga) he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics for the invention of quantum electrodynamics, we read:

But Schwinger and I got together, and saw that we were both on the right track.

Different paths, though – I couldn’t understand his maths and he couldn’t understand my pictures. But you know, it was okay.
We trusted each other.

After giving and publishing the Feynman Lectures in Physics, he complained that he has put so much time and energy into their preparation that he had wasted two years doing no physics, and was told (and comes to realise for himself) that the lectures are more valuable for physics than a couple of years of his research.

The virtue of the book, I think, resides in something best understood via an anecdote about the different ways his two children reacted to bedtime stories, leading him to opine,

What I learned from this is when somebody says, “I know a very good method of teaching science …”
Well, a method that worked for my son didn’t work at all with my daughter. Different personalities.

Although it is also episodic and makes use of cartoon-style drawing, Masters’ book is as different as its subject is different from Feynman. First, the received picture of Feynman is of a nerd who, by his own efforts and hard work, became expert at safecracking, drawing, and drumming, and a real extrovert. (This picture is based on the autobiographic books, although we do see a small crack in the mirror: early on, in a scene from his childhood, his mother says, “He says he can’t decide whether to be a scientist or a comedian.”) Simon Norton, on the other hand, clearly takes himself as a given, unalterable fact.

Second, Ottaviani and Myrick exploit the fact that Richard Feynman himself was a brilliant expositor to explain his work; on the other hand, nobody who knows Simon Norton would describe him as a brilliant expositor, and his work on group theory and the Monster is left in impenetrable darkness. The Monster is described as a Sudoku with 808017424794512875886459904961710757005754368000000000 columns. The symmetry groups of a triangle and the square are explained, but the chasm between them and the Monster is not illuminated, not even by Moonshine, not even by the Moonlight Sonata, the music standing on Simon’s piano, open but never played (he likes Beethoven but “Home is for silence”).

But it isn’t that kind of book. We are introduced to, and get to know, a remarkable person, far from the norm, who has apparently made huge contributions to an arcane part of mathematics, but is not a driven genius, rather (as the subtitle says) a happy man.

Those who know Simon even slightly will recognise the puffa jacket, the bus timetables, and this: “It’s not his looks. It’s the way he hovers …”

You are warned that, if you know some group theory, you will find mis-statements that will make you tear your hair, and places where we are within reach of a clear explanation of something but the author draws back. (Perhaps Simon Norton’s explanations to the author were not clear enough.) For all I know, the information about buses may be just as wrong. If that will ruin the book for you, perhaps you’d better not read it. But there are also some gems of insight.

For example, the author is amazed that his subject doesn’t know who it was who first wrote down the group axioms (the “Four Rules of Groups”), who codified the subject, set it in stone. [Do you know?] Simon Norton reckons that this piece of information doesn’t bring you any closer to understanding the Monster, and so has no time for it. You need to “think of the subject aesthetically, develop empathy for it, use your intuition“.

(There is a significant point here. Masters spends some time on introducing group theory, as far as subgroups, but wimps out of saying what a normal subgroup is, so the reader doesn’t know what makes a group simple. It’s clear that Norton thinks quite differently, but it’s not clear how.)

Masters asks himself why he is writing this book; he concludes that Norton “is to biography what the Monster is to the mathematics of group theory: an intractible problem who nevertheless represents an atomic type of being”.

When I was a student, I looked at my contemporaries, and wondered who, if anyone, of our generation would match the giants of our teachers’ generation, who stood out clear and sharp from their contemporaries. I thought that maybe there were too many of us for anyone to stand out. But perhaps Alexander Masters has answered my question.

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About Peter Cameron

I count all the things that need to be counted.
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