From the author of the national bestseller Chaos comes an outstanding biography of one of the most dazzling and flamboyant scientists of the 20th century that "not only paints a highly attractive portrait of Feynman but also . . . makes for a stimulating adventure in the annals of science" (The New York Times).
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.
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 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.’
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.
Unfortunately the book is too much a popular biography to 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.)
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.
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 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.