Genius : the life and science of Richard Feynman

by James Gleick

Hardcover, 1992




New York : Pantheon Books, c1992.


"A genius, a great mathematician once said, performs magic, does things that nobody else could do. To his scientific colleagues, Richard Feynman was a magician of the highest caliber. Architect of quantum theories, enfant terrible of the atomic bomb project, caustic critic of the space shuttle commission, Nobel Prize winner for work that gave physicists a new way of describing and calculating the interactions of subatomic particles, Richard Feynman left his mark on virtually every area of modern physics. Originality was his obsession. Never content with what he knew or with what others knew, Feynman ceaselessly questioned scientific truths. But there was also another side to him, one which made him a legendary figure among scientists. His curiosity moved well beyond things scientific: he taught himself how to play drums, to give massages, to write Chinese, to crack safes. In Genius, James Gleick, author of the acclaimed best-seller Chaos, shows us a Feynman few have seen. He penetrates beyond the gleeful showman depicted in Feynman's own memoirs and reveals a darker Feynman: his ambition, his periods of despair and uncertainty, his intense emotional nature. From his childhood on the beaches and backlots of Far Rockaway and his first tinkering with radios and differential equations to the machine shops at MIT and the early theoretical work at Princeton - work that foreshadowed his famous notion of antiparticles traveling backward in time - to the tragic death of his wife while he was working at Los Alamos, Genius shows how one scientist's vision was formed. As that vision crystallized in work that reinvented quantum mechanics, we see Feynman's impact on the elite particle-physics community, and how Feynman grew to be at odds with the very community that idolized him. Finally, Gleick explores the nature of genius, our obsession with it and why the very idea may belong to another time. Genius records the life of a scientist who has forever changed science - and changed what it means to know something in this uncertain century"--Jacket.… (more)

Media reviews

In "Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman" Mr. Gleick, a former science reporter for The New York Times and the author of "Chaos," demonstrates a great ability to portray scientific people and places and to dramatize the emergence of new ideas. Trying to explain scientific work of the
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caliber of Feynman's is a difficult undertaking, however, especially if one tries to do it without resort to much mathematics, as Mr. Gleick does. But despite the lack of authentic science, one can thoroughly enjoy this well-researched biography for its picture of Feynman and his world.
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User reviews

LibraryThing member setnahkt
In Genius, James Gleick has the same problem with Richard Feynman that Robert Kanigel had with Ramanujan in The Man Who Knew Infinity. If you are writing about a genius in literature, you can include excerpts from their works; if a genius painter, pictures of their paintings; if a genius musician,
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recordings of their music; and thus give some level of accessibility to readers who don’t happen to be geniuses. With a genius in science or mathematics, you’re out of luck; thus, there are some equations in Genius, and some Feynman diagrams, but they don’t really help very much. Biographers of scientific geniuses are reduced to stressing eccentricities – on the order of “Well, perhaps Albert Einstein was the greatest physicist who ever lived, but he never wore socks”. (In fact, Einstein is mentioned in Genius, when Feynman goes to visit him at Princeton – and it’s noted that Einstein was wearing shoes, but no socks). If you’re a genius with no eccentricity besides your scientific ability, your biographers will be lost – in fact, you probably won’t get a biography at all. (Example: there’s only one person ever to win two Nobel Prizes in physics. Their personal life was perfectly ordinary. Name this person).

So, we get Feynman the eccentric – playing the bongos, cracking safes at Los Alamos, “womanizing”, juicy details. Gleick notes Feynman cultivated this to a small extent; but he also enjoyed the challenges of playing the bongos, cracking safes, and women. There’s nothing that gives me a real understanding of Feynman’s physics – because I’m not a genius and I wouldn’t understand it. Ah well, there’s always the Lectures.
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LibraryThing member Steve55
This is a fantastic book for those interested in physics, but more importantly for those interested in change.

It is the biography of Richard Feynman, the talented physicist, winner of the Nobel Prize and major contributor to our understanding of particle physics. The term ‘genius’ is often
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used cheaply, and although Feynman would have declined the description, having read this account it is difficult to argue that he was not fully deserving of the title.

I first became aware of Richard Feynman through quotations credited to him, and was intrigued to find out more about the man behind the ideas. This book deals with his life and achievements and as much of this was directed at the hidden and mysterious world and mathematics that define the inner working of atoms, you might expect a difficult read. Have no fear. James Gleick has done a brilliant job of avoiding the mathematics whilst successfully conveying the ideas that Feynman spent a lifetime working on, without belittling them through oversimplification. Instead he succeeds in graphically illuminating the world of quantum physics as a truly remarkable one where particles exist for fractions of a billionth of a second, appear capable of travelling back in time, and provide the key to unlock our understanding of the universe, gravity and time itself.

‘I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.’
Richard Feynman.

That James Gleick is able to graphically convey the work of a genius operating in this field is truly fitting since the hallmark of Feynman’s work was a single minded focus on creating and sharing understanding, to create penny dropping moments of revelation, no matter how complex the underlying concepts. His career spanned almost the entire period of the development of modern physics, through to his untimely death in 1988. His life criss-crossed the paths of an array of great scientists such as Einstein, Dirac and Fermi and includes work on the development of the atom bomb and the investigation of the Challenger Shuttle disaster. Along the way he left a trail of discoveries. ideas and people he inspired, and received the Nobel Prize in recognition of only a small part of his contribution to science.

All of this is a fascinating account of a key participant and luminary at the cutting edge of scientific advance. But for me it is so much more. With an interest in the journey of change, this book provides a real insight into the thinking and approach of someone who saw change as an invitation to explore. His guiding principles were that nothing can ever be known with absolute certainty and that all knowledge was partial and temporary. For Feynman, as for Einstein, the most powerful tool in creating advance was imagination.
Rather than the widespread popularly held view that science is about the known,

This is a book full of insights. If you want to glimpse into the world of quantum physics and understand concepts and principles that you may have feared were beyond you, this book does the job. Beyond this the book provides an insight into the thinking of a man who was truly a genius and who defined genius as the ability to question, challenge, understand and create understanding.

Feynman is quoted as saying that he never read a scientific biography that he enjoyed. I agree with the reviewer who on the back cover suggests that he would have enjoyed this one. I read it on holiday and recommend that you set aside a little time to do the same.
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LibraryThing member HadriantheBlind
Very impressive biography of Feynman. Extremely interesting book - although with Feynman's life, it isn't too hard to make an interesting story out of it. Good balance of lucid scientific explanations and biographical narrative.
LibraryThing member sevster
As with Chaos, Gleick brings about a sense of familiarity to subjects that few had knowledge of before. Genius has brought about a deeper understanding of the man Feynman was and with it newly rediscovered love and respect.
LibraryThing member iayork
Reader: If you love Dr.Feynman and physics, you will love this book too. Impeccably written it charts out four phases in his life,from birth, early education, Los Alamos and the final struggle with cancer which apparently had its origins in the Manhattan project owing to prolonged exposure to
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radiation. Woven into the body of the text is the same light heartedness and banter that so characterized his life and work but brings home the rampant brilliance of this man in all its profundity. His uncanny sense of bringing the truth, far removed from the official verbose so much in evidence when he was a member of the commission that probed the Challenger disaster, is the recurring theme throughout the book. Gleick illustrates that beyond the free sprit that seems to stick out, an intensely personal side shows up as his tribulations when wife Arlene battled tuberculosis and he frantically worked at Los Alamos .The last few sections are poignant, when a cancer struck Dr.Feynman realizes that his hopes of visiting an exotic but secluded Soviet territory Tuva was fast vanishing, caught in the foliage of government bureaucracy, he so detested; the visa did arrive but by then it was a little too late. Even in the final moment his spirit shines through; his last words being, "I would hate to die twice, it's so boring", as the end came at 10:34 pm, 15th of Feb, 1988 at the UCLA medical college. James Gleick has composed a wonderful book of one of the most inscrutable characters of the world of physics. Surely worth reading!!
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LibraryThing member figre
The challenge for every biographer is this: how do you tie together the stories that are a person’s life, what is it (besides that very life) that is the drive behind the story? James Gleick’s approach initially makes sense – tie the life of the Nobel prize-winning quantum scientist with the
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developments of quantum mechanics; tie his progress to that of the science that made him so famous.

While an admirable idea, Gleick overdoes it. In fact, the book feels more like the history of quantum mechanics than the biography of this most remarkable man. In small doses, it would work. But too much time is spent away from the man, and too much on the other men and the science. And that science often gets to be too much, attempting to take the reader deeper into the math and theories than most lay-people can absorb.

Now, let’s make it just that much worse. The main attraction that a biography of Richard Feynman holds (the reason I was interested in reading over 400 pages about a scientist) is that the man was a genius, an eccentric, an explorer (of the mind), and a story-teller. He had an important roll in development of the atom bomb. He was an accomplished drummer (including becoming part of a Brazilian samba band.) He raised the hardest questions while on the panel reviewing the Challenger disaster and almost single-handedly found the cause (and the root cause.) He was a noted safe-cracker. He had an amazing coded correspondence with his wife while working in Los Alamos. He did a lot of fascinating and strange things (this list merely scratches the surface). However, although you might have recognized his work in Los Alamos and his work on the Challenger disaster within this book, you would only hear mentions of the other stories and never understood how much they said about who Feynman was.

This means that the reader who is unaware of the full spectrum of Feynman’s talent will never understand it by reading this biography. And more’s the shame. Because, as already mentioned, the lay reader will get lost in this biography and think that this is just another scientist – a genius no doubt (which reminds me that I haven’t mentioned the single chapter spent talking about “What is genius”, and other similar chapters that spend more time pontificating than describing - but I won’t go into that now), but more than a genius – a curious and fascinating man.

At the end of the day, the full Feynman does not appear. And I wonder if this was a conscious choice on Gleick’s part. After all, Feynman did far too good a job of letting us know his human side; maybe Gleick has decided to give us more of the scientist. (And, if you want that human side, I highly recommend “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman”, “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and just about anything else authored by Feynman himself.) But the result, while of interest to the scientist, loses the rest of us. There had to be a middle ground, and it is a shame that Gleick did no find it. By focusing so much on the science, he has authored an incomplete biography, and an incomplete description of the man.

But, all that being said, I do not want to totally dismiss (nor dis) this book - because it does have value in placing Feynman in the times. And, while it should not have been the primary purpose of a biography on Feynman, the book does do an excellent (if sometimes confusing to the non-specialist) job of providing the history of quantum mechanics. This was a strange group of people. And the book does do a good job of showing how Feynman, by being just a little stranger, was a little better. Which means that the book is good as far as it goes, probably excellent at what it attempts to be, and a far-sight short of the man himself.
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LibraryThing member FKarr
superb science biography; lacking in scientifice detail, but an informative, enlightening, entertaining, and illuminating discussion of Feynman's work, foibles, humanity, flaws and strong character
LibraryThing member name99
I read this in the hope of getting something of an overview of Feynman's QED work, in particular of the relationships between the theory (with Wheeler) of backward causality for EM, and of the Hamiltonian vs Lagrangian interpretations of QFT.

Unfortunately the book is too much a popular biography to
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spend much time on the details of the physics; about the only thing of interest I learned was that Feynman appears towards the end to have become less enamored of theories of backward causality (either photons or positrons running backwards in time). (But maybe even this is wrong, maybe I am misinterpreting Gleick.)
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LibraryThing member Pattern-chaser
A well-written biography of an extraordinary scientist and thinker.
LibraryThing member tgraettinger
A good biography of challenging subjects, Feynman and physics. I enjoyed the description of his days leading up to and immediately following Los Alamos. Beyond that, for me, the subject started to drag. Still, all in all, worthwhile reading.
LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
I don't have much a track record for reading biographies, so I can't judge this book against many others. But I do know that I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Having read most of Feynman's own materials (albeit stuff that was knocked into shape by others) and having viewed his messenger lectures (thanks to
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Bill Gates - well done Bill) like a giggling twit, you can guess that I am already a fan of the guy.

I think that the fact this book took some of the gloss and polish away from some of his better known adventures just made him all the more human and likeable and certainly didn't make me feel like the wizards curtain had been pulled to one side.

The book is easy to read yet comprehensive and detailed. Told with brutal honesty and yet still sensitively written and far more than a simple recounting of diary dates and events.

PS the science is great too.
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LibraryThing member lauren.castan
I'll have to lem this book as it needs to get back to the library. I've read about one third. I really like James Gleik's writing and this book deserves more time and attention.
LibraryThing member jamespurcell
Interesting man, interesting life,even an interesting death. Well written and thoroughly researched.
LibraryThing member Booktacular
Long and thorough. I had to muddle through the middle a bit. Feynman felt like a very human "character" that is deeply flawed but likable.
LibraryThing member sharkfish
I enjoyed learning about Feynman. This is the definitive bio.
LibraryThing member tlockney
I'm always a sucker for a biography of Feynman -- this is perhaps the best. Read it.
LibraryThing member halesso
Feynman's success in QED re-normalization won him the Nobel Prize, but his contributions were broad in science and education. I read his lecture series many years ago and got a grounding in many aspects of physics. However, what this book offers is anecdotal stories of his life that illustrate his
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humor and instincts for discovery. His, all too human, pranks are legendary. I enjoyed the book immensely.
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LibraryThing member dasam
A remarkable book about a remarkable man. Gleick does as good a job as anyone can at 1) explaining another person and 2) explaining the physics that has gone beyond what the eye can see, the hand can feel, and the average person can comprehend.
LibraryThing member sarahlh
This was a wonderful, comprehensive biography of Feynman. I was surprised to learn about aspects of his life barely touched upon or glazed over in other texts. A good mixture of his personal life and his scientific career. If you don't get emotional at the last chapter, I don't know what to tell
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you. Looking forward to reading CHAOS, which is by the same author.
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National Book Award (Finalist — Nonfiction — 1992)
Pulitzer Prize (Finalist — 1993)



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