The Beat of a Different Drum

This is an authorized biography of Feynman, written with his full cooperation and support. In 1980, he suggested this project to Mehra, a physicist, biographer of physicists, and chronicler of the history of physics research. Much of Mehra’s discussion of Feynman’s personal life is based on a number of interviews with Feynman shortly before the latter’s death, supplemented with interviews with nearly eighty other individuals who knew Feynman.

Mehra provides excellent discussions of Feynman’s scientific achievements, and places those achievements within the context of twentieth century physics. Some familiarity with calculus, however, is necessary to fully appreciate Mehra’s insights. He also provides understanding of Feynman’s personality, as well as his well-deserved reputation as a teacher. Because Mehra quotes extensively from his interviews, the reader acquires a great deal of the information in the words of Feynman himself, who is an extremely entertaining storyteller.

The one weakness of the book is Mehra’s overdependence upon Feynman as a source, especially for nontechnical issues. There are occasional factual errors or misstatements scattered throughout the book which beg for correction, or at least some contextual explanation why Feynman misremembers or never properly understood the situation. Mehra would have written an even better biography if he had consulted some books on American social history, in particular something dealing with the Great Depression.