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Manny Rayner's book reviews

I love reviewing books - have been doing it at Goodreads, but considering moving here.

Currently reading

The Greatest Show On Earth: The Evidence For Evolution
Richard Dawkins
R in Action
Robert Kabacoff
Fluid Concepts and Creative Analogies
Douglas R. Hofstadter
McGee on Food and Cooking: An Encyclopedia of Kitchen Science, History and Culture
Harold McGee
Epistemic Dimensions of Personhood
Simon Evnine
Pattern Recognition and Machine Learning (Information Science and Statistics)
Christopher M. Bishop
Relativity, Thermodynamics and Cosmology
Richard C. Tolman
The Cambridge Handbook of Second Language Acquisition
Julia Herschensohn, Martha Young-Scholten
The Character of Physical Law - Richard P. Feynman As I progressed through this excellent little book, I began to feel that the style was somehow familiar from another genre. Mozart? Perhaps e.e. cummings? But my subconscious, while granting that I wasn't totally off-base, informed me that it had a chess analogy in mind.

I had never thought about it before, but I am suddenly rather taken with the idea of comparing great physics writers with great chess players. Penrose reminds me of Tal, trusting his astonishing visual intuition to steer him through mind-bogglingly complicated thickets of mathematical formulae. Einstein is Botvinnik, an iron logician who formulates his strategy at the beginning of the game and ruthlessly implements it to what seems like an inevitable conclusion. Newton is Fischer: not quite sane, he nevertheless plays perfectly without anyone being able to see where he finds the brilliant ideas. Dirac is Alekhine, producing a miraculous mating attack out of nowhere.

And Feynman? Well, he can't be anyone except Capablanca. The deceptive effortlessness and simplicity of his moves, explained in a voice evidently more often used for seducing beautiful women...

I have been thinking about this remarkable book ever since I finished it a few days ago, and I feel I should say more. But it's difficult. Feynman is, of course, telling you interesting things about science, but the reason people love him is not so much the content, but the style. You read him, and you believe for a moment that you understand how this unique person saw the world.

Is it an illusion? I really don't know. His voice is so immediate and personal. He says in a matter-of-fact way that we understand these things over here quite well, these other things a bit, and the matters in this last group not at all. He tells you how you question Nature to learn a new fundamental law as though it were the simplest thing in the world. At the same time, he warns that we are at a very unusual and exciting point in history, and that soon it will no longer be possible for people to have these experiences. He is utterly convincing.

I just read William James's Varieties of Religious Experience, and I couldn't help thinking: is Feynman what James would call a mystic? If anyone had made the suggestion to him, I am sure he would have laughed at them. He hated all forms of pretentiousness, and his book never uses a long word when a short one will do. He evidently felt that formal philosophy was a waste of time. He didn't think he was doing anything special, and that anyone could understand the physical world as he did if only they would try a little.

Of course, that's the kind of thing mystics often say.