RICHARD P. FEYNMAN,
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Norton: $16.95).
Overwhelmed by a flurry of job offers after working on the atom bomb during World War II--including a position at the Institute for Advanced Study ("Better than Einstein, even! It was ideal; it was perfect; it was absurd!")--Richard Feynman began to worry about whether he could live up to his colleagues' expectations:
So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I'll never accomplish anything, I've got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the "Arabian Nights" for pleasure, I'm going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.
Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.
I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate--two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, "Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it's two to one? . . . ."
I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there's the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was "playing"--working, really--with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems: all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.
It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business (for which) I got the Nobel Prize came from piddling around with the wobbling plate.
Home Before Dark (Houghton Mifflin: $15.95).
Having first profiled her father in a 1977 cover story for Newsweek, Susan Cheever creates a more intimate portrait in this biography, drawing upon letters, unpublished journals and her own loving memories for a look at John Cheever's strength of vision, as well as his uncertainties as a writer:
Once, when I was about 14, as we were coming back across the Tappan Zee Bridge . . . I noticed that the car seemed to be stalling. As we approached the curving superstructure at the center of the bridge, the stalling seemed to get worse. I looked over at my father and saw that his foot was shaking against the accelerator. He was very pale.
"Talk to me," he said.
"About what?" I noticed that his hands were trembling too. The car bucked along, edging toward the guardrail at the side of the bridge.
"It doesn't matter, just talk."
"Well, I'm reading a novel that I like a lot," I said. We had passed under the superstructure by now and were on our way down the other side. The car veered back into the center of traffic and out again toward the guardrail.
"Go on," my father said.
"It's about a love affair. When he loves her she doesn't love him and when she loves him he doesn't love her. He writes her a lot of letters . . . ." We had reached the tollbooth at the end of the bridge. My father's breathing relaxed and the car moved smoothly up the exit ramp. We stopped at the light and turned north up Route 9 toward home.
Years after that, my father wrote a story about his fear called "The Angel of the Bridge." "I felt that my terror of bridges was an expression of my clumsily concealed horror of what is becoming of the world," he wrote in the story. He was troubled by the unhappiness of his friends, appalled at the rows of new houses going up where meadows and trees had been, disgusted by the substitution of freeways for country roads and fast-food burgers for home cooking.
That was what he called "the dark side." But his worst depressions were often lightened by his vision of what life could be. "It all came back--blue sky courage, the high spirits of lustiness, an ecstatic sereneness," he wrote in the story, describing the way he felt after a harp-playing hitchhiker dispelled his fear by singing as they drove across the bridge. "I offered to take her wherever she wanted to go, but she shook her head and walked away, and I drove on . . . through a world that, having been restored to me, seemed marvelous and fair."
The Periodic Table (Schocken: $16.95).