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Genius: R. Feynman

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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). 16 pages of photos. From the Trade Paperback edition.


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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). 16 pages of photos. From the Trade Paperback edition.

30 review for Genius: R. Feynman

  1. 5 out of 5

    Darwin8u

    "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard Feynman "Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it." - Richard Feynman Feynman was lucky in three ways. First, the guy was born with a brain that somehow gave him access to problems with a speed and a dexterity that seemed magical to his peers, and his peers are people that already often stretched the capacity for knowledge and intelligence. Seco "The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool." - Richard Feynman "Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it." - Richard Feynman Feynman was lucky in three ways. First, the guy was born with a brain that somehow gave him access to problems with a speed and a dexterity that seemed magical to his peers, and his peers are people that already often stretched the capacity for knowledge and intelligence. Second, Feynman was lucky to be born at the right time. He came into his abilities at the right moment for Physics. He was there when physicists (post Einstein's relativity) seemed to grab a larger piece of global attention. Third, Feynman was lucky to have participated in WWII's war of the magicians (Los Alamos and the Atomic Bomb). All of these things combined with Feynman's iconoclastic nature, his perseverance and single-mindedness, his capacity to get to the root of problems, put Feynman second to Einstein in 20th century minds. The book itself is a very good example of scientific biography. Gleick doesn't stray, however, too far from the anecdotal autobiography of Feynman in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. Gleick elaborates, provides more detail, adds interesting vignettes on other Physicists that fell into Feynman's orbit (Wilson, Oppenheimer, Dyson, Dirac, Bohr, Schwinger, Gell-Mann, etc). Those diversions and Gleick's occasional riffs on the idea of genius keep this from being just an average scientific biography. It also was a bit stronger and more robust than Gleick's earlier work: Chaos: Making a New Science. All that said, it still wasn't an AMAZING biography. I appreciated the time spent on the details. The accuracy and notes associated with this book, but a lot of the magic of the book existed in Feynman himself and not in the telling of it.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Robert Bryce

    I recently finished reading Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I’m a big fan of Gleick’s. His book on Isaac Newton was brilliant. And in this bio of Feynman, who was one of the midwives of the atomic bomb, Gleick illustrates just how important Feynman’s thinking has been to our modern understanding of physics, and therefore, of energy. Feynman grappled with the big questions about matter, science, and the quest for human knowledge and understanding. One of my favor I recently finished reading Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I’m a big fan of Gleick’s. His book on Isaac Newton was brilliant. And in this bio of Feynman, who was one of the midwives of the atomic bomb, Gleick illustrates just how important Feynman’s thinking has been to our modern understanding of physics, and therefore, of energy. Feynman grappled with the big questions about matter, science, and the quest for human knowledge and understanding. One of my favorite parts of Gleick’s book comes early on, when he talks about Feynman’s effort to distill human understanding of science into as short a passage as possible. Feynman posed himself this question: what if all scientific knowledge were lost in a cataclysm? What statement would convey the most knowledge in the fewest words to the next generations? Feynman proposed this: “All things are made of atoms – little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another….In that one little sentence , you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.” Gleick is brilliant. For me, he’s a little like Mark Twain in that when I read his stuff, it whispers to me that I should perhaps quit what I’m doing because I’ll just never be that good.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Josh Friedlander

    Gleick is a thorough, intelligent science writer able to give over complex ideas without sacrificing too much depth. He still lost me with some of the particle physics stuff. Feynman started his academic career as a precocious math undergrad at Princeton, and went to the pinnacle of modern science, first at the Manhattan Project and later designing a daunting freshman physics curriculum at CalTech later published as "Six Easy Pieces". His career neatly parallels the modern perception of science: Gleick is a thorough, intelligent science writer able to give over complex ideas without sacrificing too much depth. He still lost me with some of the particle physics stuff. Feynman started his academic career as a precocious math undergrad at Princeton, and went to the pinnacle of modern science, first at the Manhattan Project and later designing a daunting freshman physics curriculum at CalTech later published as "Six Easy Pieces". His career neatly parallels the modern perception of science: theoretical physics was transformed from a discipline akin, in practical application, to "medieval French", to a near-religion, captivating the awed respect of the public, and leading to enormous increases in governmental research spending and the development of "Big Science". And later, as the pace of new developments dropped, and scientists, confronted with an ever-increasing list of particles, gradually gave up on finding a unified theory of the atom, more mystical and antiscientific thinking gradually re-emerged. Notable personal aspects of Feynman were his pre-feminist attitudes toward women, culminating in protests at some of his public talks, and, related, his near-constant womanising. (He never recovered emotionally from the death of his beloved first wife.) Also worth noting is that his quips and stories, seemingly off-the-cuff, were carefully rehearsed in his notebooks. All of which shouldn't take away from the scope of his genius. Gleick sees his subject as the genius par excellence, akin to Einstein and Newton (the latter a previous biographical subject). He devotes a chapter in the final section to a fascinating discussion of the nature and history of "genius". Feynman's thinking was, in speed and clarity, unlike that of normal people. One final point: in an interview with the BBC retold by Gleick, Feynman becomes quite agitated when asked to explain in layman's terms how magnets work. He insists that they just work. This is quite out of the ordinary, as in every other regard Feynman seemed to consider the ability to explain something in simple terms as the hallmark of a clear understanding. This just adds to my conviction that the Insane Clown Posse was really onto something.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Carl Zimmer

    I do not do well with audiobooks. I quickly drift away to thoughts about other things. When I come back to the audiobook, I usually have no idea what's going on. I recently launched into Genius, James Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman, and this experience has been surprisingly different. I have immensely enjoyed having his words poured into my ears. I suspect it has to do with the gorgeous style and structure of Gleick's writing here. He clearly has amassed a staggering amount of vivid detai I do not do well with audiobooks. I quickly drift away to thoughts about other things. When I come back to the audiobook, I usually have no idea what's going on. I recently launched into Genius, James Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman, and this experience has been surprisingly different. I have immensely enjoyed having his words poured into my ears. I suspect it has to do with the gorgeous style and structure of Gleick's writing here. He clearly has amassed a staggering amount of vivid detail from Feynman's life, but he's selected from this mountain carefully, rather than dumping it all on the reader's head. To tell Feynman's story, he has to guide us through the recent history of physics, which he manages to do with remarkable grace. It's the story of a remarkable person in a remarkable time. I look forward to hours more of listening.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Max

    Gleick portrays Feynman as an irreverent spirit and productive scientist who deeply influenced his generation of physicists. A Nobel Prize winner, Feynman’s contribution to physics was more about developing original techniques that clarified complex problems than any singular discovery. As we follow Feynman’s life we learn how particle physics and its community evolved in the mid twentieth century from the formulation of quantum mechanics to the standard model. We witness developments in nuclear Gleick portrays Feynman as an irreverent spirit and productive scientist who deeply influenced his generation of physicists. A Nobel Prize winner, Feynman’s contribution to physics was more about developing original techniques that clarified complex problems than any singular discovery. As we follow Feynman’s life we learn how particle physics and its community evolved in the mid twentieth century from the formulation of quantum mechanics to the standard model. We witness developments in nuclear physics and quantum electrodynamics (QED). Gleick’s biography is as much a personal story as one of science. Feynman was different from other physicists, a non-conformist who stood out and stood up, and this was an essential part of his greatness. Born in 1918, Feynman grew up in Far Rockaway on the ocean in Queens, NY. He loved math. As a child he was always playing with problems in his head. He kept a notebook that he filled with math exercises. By high school he was ahead of his teachers. Columbia rejected him because it had filled its Jewish quota, but MIT took him and he quickly distinguished himself. Realizing that there was little practical he could do with math he switched to electrical engineering and then physics. Physics was just getting established as a discipline in its own right. He graduated from MIT in 1939. Feynman was enamored with quantum mechanics. For his graduate education he elected to go to Princeton which was becoming a leader in nuclear physics. He turned down a scholarship he won to Harvard. Princeton was taken back by his terrible grades in everything except physics and math, and concerned that he was Jewish. They took him anyway based on recommendations from his MIT professors and an unheard of perfect score on the physics entrance exam. He soon impressed everyone including department head Eugene Wigner, who would win a Nobel Prize and whose mathematics provided an important foundation for quantum mechanics. Wigner would later describe Feynman as a second Paul Dirac, only human. The extremely reticent Dirac had mathematically defined the electron predicting the positron. Wigner’s sister was married to Dirac, who was a hero to Feynman. In 1939 John Wheeler, a distinguished theoretician who later would coin the term “black hole”, was a 28 year old Professor at Princeton. A disciple of Niels Bohr, Wheeler drew Feynman into collaboration on his work in quantum field theory. Wheeler postulated that there is only one electron that goes forward and backward in time. At any given time only isolated parts of its path are exposed which is the particle we recognize. Feynman didn’t quite buy this but did develop a theory showing the positron as an electron going back in time. In this work on electrodynamics Feynman explored new techniques. He used path integrals which summed all possible paths a particle could take generating the wave function using a measure called probability amplitude. These concepts would be fully developed later in his version of QED. By the time he was a 22 year old graduate student Feynman with Wheeler’s help was giving a presentation attended by Einstein, Pauli and mathematical genius John von Neumann. Feynman had fallen in love with Arline Greenbaum, who he had known since high school. In 1941 she was diagnosed with lymphatic tuberculosis, an unusual form of the disease with a poor but uncertain prognosis. Also in 1941 WWII started. Wheeler left for Chicago to work with Fermi. Feynman engaged in isotope separation work at Princeton. Wigner told him it was time to write his thesis and move on. Feynman graduated and had planned to marry Arline. But what about the disease: Could he catch it, could they have children? He married her anyway, despite his mother’s objections, and even though Arline had to stay in a nearby hospital afterwards. In early 1943 Feynman received a call from Robert Oppenheimer saying he had found a nice sanatorium for Arline near Albuquerque, New Mexico. He needed Feynman in Los Alamos. Feynman became a group leader and made significant contributions to the calculations critical to the bomb’s success. He streamlined the use of the simple calculation devices available. His unmatched speed at complex mental calculations often delivered answers more quickly. He served as a sounding board for the eminent Bohr who realized only Feynman was brazen enough to point out his mistakes. Feynman also inspected and made important recommendations that prevented disastrous explosions at Oak Ridge and Hannaford where uranium was purified. In 1945 Arline died and it affected Feynman deeply for the rest of his life. Distraught he was given leave and just made it back in time to witness the Trinity explosion. He had impressed Oppenheimer who wanted him to come to Berkley after the war but he followed his Los Alamos department head and future Nobel Prize winner Hans Bethe to Cornell. At Cornell, Feynman formed a relationship with a young Freeman Dyson, the English mathematician. Both agreed on the importance of visualization. Quantum descriptions of the electron made this impossible. Bohr had given up on his original conceptualization of the atom as some kind of mini solar system. Describing electrons as particles with orbits, angular momentum and spin alluded to a physicality that did not exist in the quantum world. Yet visualization was important. Einstein’s greatest achievements were inspired by visualization such as traveling along with a beam of light. Just manipulating equations proved less productive. Even Dirac who eschewed experimentation, would visualize geometric shapes first then translate them into equations. Feynman tried to visualize the world he was describing mathematically. One can use lines to represent a magnetic field but are there really any such lines. Mathematically a field is just an array of values in space. Feynman said, “I have a terrible confusion between the symbols I use to describe the objects and the objects themselves.” In 1948 Julian Schwinger presented his work on quantum electrodynamics at a meeting of the world’s top theorists who were duly impressed. Feynman followed presenting his version of QED including his soon to be famous Feynman diagrams but it was not well received. Afterwards Freeman Dyson put together a paper which refined the mathematics supporting Feynman’s ideas, and then Feynman published again. Gradually physicists began adopting Feynman’s techniques instead of Schwinger’s. Feynman’s approach incorporated the principle of least action applied to particle paths, the path integrals Feynman had worked on under Wheeler. Summing of the probability amplitudes of these paths yielded the wave function. Implicit was the electron going back and forth in time. As Feynman put it, “It may prove useful in physics to consider events in all of time at once and to imagine that we at each instant are only aware of those that lie behind us.” In 1949 Feynman decided it was time to move on from Cornell. His personal life was unsettled and disorganized. He had numerous short term relationships with women and never established a permanent residence. He left for Brazil where he lived it up and accepted an offer at Caltech which gave him a first year sabbatical he could enjoy. In 1952 he married one of his many romantic interests. The marriage lasted four unhappy years and ended bitterly. In 1960 he married an English woman he met in Switzerland. This one was happy and lasted the rest of his life. They had a son and adopted a daughter. Feynman settled down. At Caltech Feynman turned to the study of superfluidity, but he would return to QED. In the 1950’s the accelerator age of particle physics was beginning. Caltech recruited Murray Gell-Mann who would lead mainstream particle physics in the sixties and seventies and open up the world of quarks. He also brought out Feynman’s competitive instincts. But in 1957 under pressure from their department head they collaborated on an important paper proposing a theory of the weak interaction. While Gell-Mann respected Feynman’s ability, he had little respect for Feynman’s lack of decorum and sketchy documentation. Asked by a student about copies of some of Feynman’s notes that he found, Gell-Mann replied that Feynman’s methods are not used at Caltech. The student asked what Feynman’s methods were. Gell-Mann replied “You write down the problem. You think very hard. Then you write down the answer.” Feynman’s genius came in broad leaps often not explaining the intermediate details which were all computed or visualized in his head. Other physicists made their contributions methodically addressing the next unanswered question. But genius is more than excellence, something that could be expected of someone brilliant. Genius delivers the unexpected. It is brilliance combined with originality. Feynman didn’t research all the available knowledge then proceed to the next step. Thus he would take on problems others might dismiss as already solved or unsolvable. He focused intently only on those parts that interested him and wrestled with problems in his head often using visual pictures that he would later turn into equations in some ways similar to Dirac, his hero. In the 1960’s Feynman was asked to help with the undergraduate program at Caltech. The result was a series of lectures for freshmen that were published, widely acclaimed and used by many universities. He began with the atom and looked at physics in his own unique if disjointed way. These lectures and many others have been packaged up in books for different levels of readers and are still popular today. In 1965 Feynman along with Schwinger and Tomonaga from Japan were awarded the Nobel Prize for their “fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics with deep ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles.” At a 1967 conference James Watson gave Feynman a copy of what would be his popular Double Helix. Feynman was impressed and immediately shared it with a friend who commented, “It’s amazing that Watson made this great discovery even though he was so out of touch with what everyone in his field was doing.” Feynman retorted, “That’s what I’ve forgotten.” He recognized that his best work had resulted from defining problems in ways others hadn’t considered or proposing new solutions to problems considered already solved. In 1977 Feynman was diagnosed with a rare cancer perhaps due to his work on the Manhattan Project. Another rare cancer would strike in the 1980’s. But he had one last hurrah following the Challenger disaster in 1986. The only non-political appointee to the president's investigating commission he sought out his own set of facts as he always had. The disaster had been caused by an O ring that lost resilience at the cold temperature at the time of launch. When the commission was dancing around the responsibility for the O ring failure, Feynman was simple and clear. At a hearing he took a C clamp, pressured a sample of the material after putting it in a glass of ice water and showed everyone in the room that the material would not bounce back. This way of cutting to the chase was so typically Feynman and a fitting end to a remarkable career. Richard Feynman died in 1988. Fellow physicist Paul Olum summed it up. “How could someone like Dick Feynman be dead? This great and wonderful mind. This extraordinary feeling for things and ability is in the ground and there’s nothing there anymore… He was such an extraordinary special person in the universe.”

  6. 4 out of 5

    Arjun

    Fantastic bio of Feynman, and likely the best (in the same vein as Isaacson's takes on Einstein or Jobs) that we'll see. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the nature of science during Feynman's rise — a period where quantum mechanics was very much developing and characters like Feynman were radically unorthodox. Hearing Feynman's story is truly inspirational and makes you want to go out and discover things.

  7. 5 out of 5

    Bob

    This book made me cry. Weird, maybe, but true. In Gleick's portrayal of the true genius of Feynman, as well as some of his other contemporary genius physicists. What made me cry? Reading it was a fundamentally humbling experience. These people are SMART! And not smart like most smart folks--not at all. Growing up, I always had the feeling that, given the time and effort to study something, that I was capable of learning anything. Obviously, one cannot learn everything, but I never, until this bo This book made me cry. Weird, maybe, but true. In Gleick's portrayal of the true genius of Feynman, as well as some of his other contemporary genius physicists. What made me cry? Reading it was a fundamentally humbling experience. These people are SMART! And not smart like most smart folks--not at all. Growing up, I always had the feeling that, given the time and effort to study something, that I was capable of learning anything. Obviously, one cannot learn everything, but I never, until this book, felt that avenues were not open to me, intellectually. In reading the stories in this book, it became clear to me that these people weren't just more educated than me in their academic specialties, but on an entire (much) higher plane--in some place I could NEVER achieve, no matter how hard I ever could work on it. In the physical world, skills and capabilities are obvious. No matter how hard any of us train, we will never sprint faster that Usain Bolt. That's more tangible than intellectual barriers, which always felt more approachable to me. Well, this book slammed the door on that idea for me in a very enjoyable, yet humbling way. It was fun to read this book for me because it portray genius in a way that is entertaining to me, much like watching great athletes in the arena plying their trade. What do great physicists talk about and do to advance their field? A great read.

  8. 5 out of 5

    Hadrian

    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.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Jean

    I heard Feynman speak a number of times at conferences in the 1970’s. He was a good speaker. I chose this biography as I wanted to know more about this famous professor. Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a genius in mathematical physics. He was called “the most original mind of his generation.” Quantum electrodynamics (QED) was developed into an effective theory in 1948 independently by Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Shinichiro Tomona Ga. In 1965 the three shared the Nobel Prize for the theory. The I heard Feynman speak a number of times at conferences in the 1970’s. He was a good speaker. I chose this biography as I wanted to know more about this famous professor. Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a genius in mathematical physics. He was called “the most original mind of his generation.” Quantum electrodynamics (QED) was developed into an effective theory in 1948 independently by Feynman, Julian Schwinger and Shinichiro Tomona Ga. In 1965 the three shared the Nobel Prize for the theory. The author reveals that Feynman’s road to QED began as a graduate student at Princeton University. He started with a theory in which an electron that emits a light particle (photon) must interact with a distant electron that absorbs the particle. Feynman next work was a reformulation of Quantum Mechanics in a new way. The work was included in his doctoral thesis. The author tells of Feynman’s work at Los Alamos, N.M. working on the Manhattan Project. Gleick also goes into Feynman’s personal life including his love of Arline Greenbaum. They were married in 1941 after she became seriously ill. She entered a sanitarium near Las Alamos to be near him. She was diagnosed with lymphatic tuberculosis. She died just after their fourth anniversary. Years later he married Gweneth Howarth, an English woman he met at a conference in Switzerland. Feynman along with Sally Ride and Alan Shepherd served on the Presidential commission that investigated the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger. Gleick was a science reporter and does a good job in his portrayal of scientific people and dramatizing the emergencies of new ideas. The author did in-depth research to write this book. Feynman was a complex brilliant man. Gleick’s book provides a good introduction into his physics and his life. Gleick also reveals that Feynman was an inspired teacher. The author demonstrates in the book that Feynman was a man of absolute integrity in his scientific work. Gleick kept the biography balanced presenting all the sides of Feynman. People without a science background may have a problem following some of the science presented in the book. The book is 489 pages long. The book has lots of pictures. I read it using the Kindle app my iPad.

  10. 5 out of 5

    Jeremy

    A book that really re-awakened my inner science and math geek. In addition it introduced me to Feynman. I'm sure his name came up back in classes I took, but there is so much here that you'd never get from a one-liner in a textbook. A very interesting character. By funny happenstance, I read this right before reading Cosmic Banditos by Weisbecker. Cosmic coincidence? -Jeremy

  11. 4 out of 5

    Thorn

    doesn't really add anything to "surely you're joking" and "what do you care what other people think?" that we couldn't live without. it was interesting, but most of the same information is available in more-engaging form elsewhere.

  12. 5 out of 5

    William Herschel

    This biography puts Feynman in a more balanced, neutral light for me. When reading his memoir(s) you only get a glimpse and rather slanted presentation if you are really wanting to learn about Richard Feynman. This book is really heavy on his scientific endeavors, which shouldn't be surprising. Despite this the text is very readable and engaging, even for those less scientifically inclined. In my review of Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! I mentioned how much I thought I related to him. Well, if This biography puts Feynman in a more balanced, neutral light for me. When reading his memoir(s) you only get a glimpse and rather slanted presentation if you are really wanting to learn about Richard Feynman. This book is really heavy on his scientific endeavors, which shouldn't be surprising. Despite this the text is very readable and engaging, even for those less scientifically inclined. In my review of Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! I mentioned how much I thought I related to him. Well, if you met me you probably wouldn't see any resemblance whatsoever most likely. It's simply the way he thought about things and his adherence to truth in social encounters, and how he was always figuring things out. I certainly do not relate to the magician, showman, or physicist he also was, or claim to be anything close to what he is. But his stories are very refreshing for me to read. The biography goes into more of his personal life... mostly in regards to relationships. Reading about him and his wife is touching but I still do not think I fully understand the man in his dealings with women. Talking merely about Feynman is an injustice to this particular book because his colleagues and the science of the time are heavily delved into, even more sometimes than about Feynman himself. In fact maybe the book is just that, a history of the physics at that time, and Feynman is the star of the show.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Greg Brozeit

    I doubt I've ever read a longer book. The text was only 440 pages, but I found that I re-read (and re-re and re-re-re-read) a number of sections because the physics described was very deep and complex, especially for a layperson. But I feel I have a better understanding of the significant advances in physics in the 20th century as seen through the lens of Feynmman's intellect, methods and, as the title so ably states, genius. Although I still don't have a deep knowledge of concepts like quantum I doubt I've ever read a longer book. The text was only 440 pages, but I found that I re-read (and re-re and re-re-re-read) a number of sections because the physics described was very deep and complex, especially for a layperson. But I feel I have a better understanding of the significant advances in physics in the 20th century as seen through the lens of Feynmman's intellect, methods and, as the title so ably states, genius. Although I still don't have a deep knowledge of concepts like quantum theory, quantum mechanics, quantum electrodynamics or quantum chromodynamics, I do feel as thought I understand why they are important in physics and other sciences. I found the human stories of Feynman's first love (and marriage), his time at Los Alamos and his essential contributions to understanding the causes of the Challenger disaster to be great history and human interest. Also, his views on the math and science textbooks used in grade schools was a refreshing episode that humanized him even more for me. And I learned that this book is really about two geniuses, Feynman and the author of the book, James Gleick. Gleick's narrative demonstrates an amazing gift of writing and synthesis that few could ever hope to achieve.

  14. 4 out of 5

    Daniel

    I learned about Feynman as a teen, when I happened across an interview with him on tv. His character and intellect fascinated me, and years later I decided to learn more about him. Gleick covers Feynman's entire life in this biography. His prose is good, and he maintains a pleasing balance of anecdote and historical fact. Feynman had a large, vital personality, and Gleick is able to convey this without parroting the tone and content that Feynman uses in his autobiographical work. I've always been I learned about Feynman as a teen, when I happened across an interview with him on tv. His character and intellect fascinated me, and years later I decided to learn more about him. Gleick covers Feynman's entire life in this biography. His prose is good, and he maintains a pleasing balance of anecdote and historical fact. Feynman had a large, vital personality, and Gleick is able to convey this without parroting the tone and content that Feynman uses in his autobiographical work. I've always been able to appreciate Feynman based on his own words; thanks to Gleick, I had the chance to see him from another perspective, and appreciate him all the more.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    Big disappointment. Coming off of American Prometheus, the fantastic biography of Robert Oppenheimer, and having read a book or two of Gleick's earlier stuff, I was surprised that I couldn't even finish the damned thing. Tossed it into my donation pile a hundred pages in.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Mike

    I remember hearing about Feynman during the aftermath of the Columbia Space Shuttle explosion. I finally got around to reading about him and what a Brainiac this guy was. A certifiable genius. Gleick makes science and quatum mechancis readable, kind of. There is no way I could follow the discussion when he got deep in the math but, thankfully, much of the book is written so my poor brain could follow. I liked his description of how young Feynman played around as a kid, luckily he had tolerant pa I remember hearing about Feynman during the aftermath of the Columbia Space Shuttle explosion. I finally got around to reading about him and what a Brainiac this guy was. A certifiable genius. Gleick makes science and quatum mechancis readable, kind of. There is no way I could follow the discussion when he got deep in the math but, thankfully, much of the book is written so my poor brain could follow. I liked his description of how young Feynman played around as a kid, luckily he had tolerant parents: (view spoiler)[Eventually the art went out of radio tinkering. Children forgot the pleasures of opening the cabinets arid eviscerating their parents old Kadettes and Clubs. Solid electronic blocks replaced the radio sets messy innards-so where once you could learn by tugging at soldered wires and staring into the orange glow of the vacuum tubes; eventually nothing remained but featureless ready-made chips, the old circuits compressed a thousand told or more. The transistor, a microscopic quirk in a sliver of silicon, supplanted the reliably breakable tube, and so the world lost a well-used path into science. In the 1920s, a generation before the coming of solid-state electronics, one could look at the circuits and see how the electron stream flowed. Radios had valves, as though electricity were a fluid to be diverted by plumbing. With the click of the knob came a significant hiss and hum, just at the edge of audibility. Later it was said that physicists could be divided into two groups, those who had played with chemistry sets and those who had played with radios. Chemistry sets had their appeal, but a boy like Richard Feynman, loving diagrams and maps, could see that the radio was its own map, a diagram of itself. Its parts expressed their function, once he learned to break the code of wires, resistors, crystals, and capacitors. Richard, called Ritty by his friends, seemed to be heading single-mindedly in that direction (becoming an electrical engineer). He accumulated tube sets and an old storage battery from around the neighborhood. He assembled transformers, switches, and coils. A coil salvaged from a Ford automobile made showy sparks that burned brown-black holes in newspaper. When he found a leftover rheostat, he pushed ll0-volt electricity through it until it overloaded and burned. He held the stinking, smoking thing outside his second-floor window, as the ashes drifted down to the grassy rear yard. This was standard emergency procedure. When a pungent odor drifted in downstairs during his mother’s bridge game, it meant that Ritty was dangling his metal wastebasket out the window, waiting for the flames to die out after an abortive experiment with shoe polish-he meant to melt it and use the liquid as black paint for his “lab,” 3 wooden crate roughly the size of a refrigerator, standing in his bedroom upstairs in the rear of the house. Screwed into the crate were various electrical switches and, lights that Ritty had wired, in series and in parallel. His sister, Joan, nine years younger, served eagerly as a four-cents-a-week lab assistant. Her duties included putting a finger into a spark gap and enduring a mild shock for the entertainment of Ritty’s friends. It had already occurred to psychologists that children are innate scientists, probing, puttering, experimenting with the possible and impossible in a confused local universe. Children and scientists share an outlook on life. If I do this, what will happen? is both the motto of the child at play and the defining refrain of the physical scientist. Every child is observer, analyst, and taxonomist, building a mental life through a sequence of intellectual revolutions, constructing theories and promptly shedding them when they no longer fit. The unfamiliar and the strange---these are the domain of all children and scientists (hide spoiler)] Feynman was born at just the right time for a genius in physics. A revolution was occurring and discoveries followed one on the other. The rise of quantum mechanics was strange and yet necessary to understand reality. A simple explanation courtesy of Mr Gleick: (view spoiler)[Nature had seemed so continuous. Technology, however, made discreteness and discontinuity a part of everyday experience: gears and ratchets creating movement in tiny jumps; telegraphs that digitized information in dashes and dots. What about the light emitted by matter? At everyday temperatures the light is infrared, its wavelengths too long to be visible to the eye. At higher temperatures, matter radiates at shorter wavelengths: thus an iron bar heated in a forge glows red, yellow, and white. By the turn of the century, scientists were struggling to explain this relationship between temperature and wavelength. If heat was to be understood as the motion of molecules, perhaps this precisely tuned radiant energy suggested an internal oscillation, a vibration with the resonant tonality of a violin string. The German physicist Max Planck pursued this idea to its logical conclusion and announced in 1900 that it required an awkward adjustment to the conventional way of thinking about energy. His equations produced the desired results only if one supposed that radiation was emitted in lumps, discrete packets called quanta. He calculated a new constant of nature, the indivisible unit underlying these lumps. It was a unit, not of energy, but of the product of energy and time-~the quantity called action. (hide spoiler)] Scientific questions lay around like potatoes in a field. Need something to study, just dig one up and dive in: (view spoiler)[As he studied these most modern branches of physics, Feynman also looked for chances to explore more classical problems, problems he could visualize. He investigated the scattering of sunlight by clouds-scattering being a word that was taking a more and more central place in the vocabulary of physicists. Like so many scientific borrowings from plain English, the word came deceptively close to its ordinary meaning. Particles in the atmosphere scatter rays of light almost in the way a gardener scatters seeds or the ocean scatters driftwood. Before the quantum era a physicist could use the word without having to commit himself mentally either to a wave or a particle view of the phenomenon. Light simply dispersed as it passed through some medium and so lost some or all of its directional character. The scattering of waves implied a general diffusion, a randomizing of the original directionality. The sky is blue because the molecules of the atmosphere scatter the blue wavelengths more than the others; the blue seems to come from everywhere in the sky. The scattering of particles encouraged a more precise visualization: actual billiard-ball collisions and recoils. A single particle could scatter another. Indeed, the scattering of a very few particles would soon become the salient experiment of modern physics. That clouds scattered sunlight was obvious. Close up, each wavering water droplet must shimmer with light both reflected and refracted, and the passage of the light from one drop to the next must be another kind of diffusion A well-organized education in science fosters the illusion that when problems are easy to state and set up mathematically they are then easy to solve. For Feynman the cloud-scattering problem helped disperse the illusion. It seemed as primitive as any of hundreds of problems set out in his textbooks. It had the childlike quality that marks so many fundamental questions. It came just one step past the question of why we see clouds at all: water molecules scatter light perfectly well when they are floating as vapor, yet the light grows much whiter and more intense when the vapor condenses, because the molecules come so close together that their tiny electric fields can resonate in phase with one another to multiply the effect Feynman tried to understand also what happened to the direction of the scattered light, and he discovered something that he could not believe at first. When the light emerges from the cloud again, caroming off billions of droplets, seemingly smeared to an ubiquitous gray, it actually retains some memory of its original direction one foggy day he looked at a building far away across the river in Boston and saw its outline, faint but still sharp, diminished in contrast but not in focus. He thought: the mathematics worked after all. (hide spoiler)] Feynman was picked to join the Manhattan Project. Security is paramount in the Manhattan Project. The people running the operation at the Oak Ridge, Tennessee plant refining uranium don't know what the material is going to be used for. Feynman is sent from Los Alamos to inspect the plants and probably saved us from an inadvertent nuclear event in the US: (view spoiler)[Through dozens of rooms in a series of buildings Feynman saw drums with 300 gallons, 600 gallons, 3,000 gallons. He made drawings of their precise arrangements on floors of brick or wood; calculated the mutual influence of solid pieces of uranium metal stored in the same room; tracked the layouts of agitators, evaporators, and centrifuges; and met with engineers to study blueprints for plants under construction. He realized that the plant was headed toward a catastrophe. At some point the buildup of uranium would cause a nuclear reaction that would release heat and radioactivity at near-explosive speed. In answer to the Eastman superintendent’s question about extinguishing a reaction, he wrote that dumping cadmium salts or boron into the uranium might help, but that a supercritical reaction could run away too quickly to be halted by chemicals. He considered seemingly remote contingencies: “During centrifuging some peculiar motion of the centrifuge might possibly gather metal together in one lump, possibly near the center.” The nightmare was that two batches, individually safe, might accidentally be combined. He asked what each possible stuck valve or missing supervisor might mean. In a few places he found that the procedures were too conservative. He noted minute details of the operations. “Is CT-l empty when we drop from WK-l. . . ? Is P-Z empty when solt’n is transferred . . . ? Supervisor OK’s solution of PZ’s ppt. Under what circumstances?” Eventually, meeting with senior army officers and company managers, he laid out a detailed program for ensuring safety. He also invented a practical method-using, once again, a variational method to solve an otherwise unsolvable integral equation-that would let engineers make a conservative approximation, on the spot, of the safe levels of bomb material stored in various geometrical layouts. A few people, long afterward, thought he had saved their lives. (hide spoiler)] If you are good at math and physics you will definitely enjoy all of this book. If, like me, you not quite up to the latest in quantum electrodynamics, you will still enjoy it but might have to skip over some parts. 4 Stars One question posed in the book: "Where are all the genius's?" Where are the Shakespeares, da Vincis, Newtons? With populations now approaching 7 billion, shouldn't we have many more?

  17. 4 out of 5

    Duke L

    I went into this book idolizing Feynman. But I finished it thinking that he was an asshole who got excused for his behavior by possessing high intelligence. I used to think that Feynman was a fun, eccentric, bongo-playing scientist who wooed women. Now I know that he was one of the original douchebag Pick Up artists and gave no regard for the feelings of others. He also wasn't a very good scientist. This revelation, not expressly said in the book, was a bit upsetting to me. He was an awful scient I went into this book idolizing Feynman. But I finished it thinking that he was an asshole who got excused for his behavior by possessing high intelligence. I used to think that Feynman was a fun, eccentric, bongo-playing scientist who wooed women. Now I know that he was one of the original douchebag Pick Up artists and gave no regard for the feelings of others. He also wasn't a very good scientist. This revelation, not expressly said in the book, was a bit upsetting to me. He was an awful scientist. He was a great fan of science and of using science to solve problems, but a terrible, awful, horrible scientist. Scientists, above all, publish and share their knowledge so that they might further their field. Scientists teach others. Scientists publish and subject their work to review. Scientists stay current with new research. Feynman apparently solved practically every physics problem of his generation but neglected to tell anyone. It is apparent that very few of his contributions were unique: He was so reluctant to participate in the scientific community that much of his work was duplicated by others. I had such realizations only far into the book, like an epiphany. There was a passage about how Feynman wrote to James Watson about the latter's book, The Double Helix. Feynman thought it was a great book and told Watson to ignore the haters. He wrote this after it was apparent to most in the scientific community that Watson had villainized Rosalind Franklin and treated several others unfairly. It's one thing to be ignorant of the drama surrounding the book, it's another to be aware of it and still say, to paraphrase, "Fuck that bitch. Women are subhuman. I'm glad you showed that dead whore up, stole her research, and robbed her of a Nobel Prize. That'll sure teach women about taking men's jobs in science! This book is an accurate portrayal of the scientific process and don't let anyone tell you otherwise." Okay I'm really stretching the interpretation there, but damn that letter was really a linchpin in completely reversing my opinion on Feynman. The book is great, but the subject is not. Honestly, I dislike Feynman now. I went from thinking of him as a hero of science to thinking very lowly of him. This despite the book doing its best to describe Feynman in positive terms. I don't see how any sensible person who reads this could come away thinking better of Feynman. A one sentence summary of the book would be: You too can get away with being an immense jerk if you are a genius.

  18. 5 out of 5

    Ryan Harvey

    I really wanted to like this book. I have liked other books by the author, and after reading "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!" I consider Richard Feynman a personal hero. But ultimately I don't feel that this book did him justice, at least to my eyes as a non-physicist lay reader. This quote, about Feynman, appears near the end of the book: "They knew they had a remarkable central figure, a scientist who prided himself not on his achievements in science—these remained deep in the background—bu I really wanted to like this book. I have liked other books by the author, and after reading "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!" I consider Richard Feynman a personal hero. But ultimately I don't feel that this book did him justice, at least to my eyes as a non-physicist lay reader. This quote, about Feynman, appears near the end of the book: "They knew they had a remarkable central figure, a scientist who prided himself not on his achievements in science—these remained deep in the background—but on his ability to see through fraud and pretense and to master everyday life." Yes. This is the Feynman I want to read about. Not about his scientific achievements in all their technical detail, but about his method and approach to science and life. Unfortunately, though, the book is bogged down in long sections of technical abstraction. No doubt these sections are interesting to physicists or physics graduate students, but I'm not one of them. Perhaps this is a great book that simply did not meet my unrealistic expectations for it. But for me, I'd recommend "Surely You're Joking" absolutely without reservation, but this book only to technical readers. "Surely You're Joking" is a book about an interesting character where you learn a bit of science along the way. "Genius" is a book about science where you learn about an interesting man along the way.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Gwern

    A solid biography, though I don't have anything in particular to say about it. It throws in all the classic anecdotes and quotes you expect (which are more than worth their weight in gold - certainly, the price of admission) doesn't try to whitewash Feynman despite the temptation to hero-worship, and includes some critical examination, does at least try to explain all the physics which earned Feynman his prestige, etc. It's a well-regarded widely-read biography on an excellent subject which I ha A solid biography, though I don't have anything in particular to say about it. It throws in all the classic anecdotes and quotes you expect (which are more than worth their weight in gold - certainly, the price of admission) doesn't try to whitewash Feynman despite the temptation to hero-worship, and includes some critical examination, does at least try to explain all the physics which earned Feynman his prestige, etc. It's a well-regarded widely-read biography on an excellent subject which I have nothing to say against (aside from Gleick unfortunately repeating Feynman's story about his IQ without explaining the many reasons why this doesn't mean what people are forever taking it to mean).

  20. 4 out of 5

    Davidkantor

    The book was a technical tour de force in the way it attempted to bring extremely esoteric and non intuitive concepts of small scale physics into a popular biography in such detail that it becomes possible to glimpse the nature of Feynman's genius rather than just be told about it. That the physical explanations are dense and complex, and probably only partially grasped by the average reader, including your humble correspondent, is hardly The author's fault. A well written and ultimately humbling The book was a technical tour de force in the way it attempted to bring extremely esoteric and non intuitive concepts of small scale physics into a popular biography in such detail that it becomes possible to glimpse the nature of Feynman's genius rather than just be told about it. That the physical explanations are dense and complex, and probably only partially grasped by the average reader, including your humble correspondent, is hardly The author's fault. A well written and ultimately humbling book for those of us with any intellectual pretensions. Didn't make me particularly like Mr Feynman, but hard not to respect his accomplishments.

  21. 4 out of 5

    Tatiana

    I thought this biography sucked. Though he may have had his facts exactly right, he missed the whole spirit of what made Feynman cool. I don't recommend it. I was very disappointed, too, because he did such a great job with the Chaos book.

  22. 5 out of 5

    Eva

    Five stars if you like Feynman, four stars for everyone else :) “Half genius and half buffoon,” Freeman Dyson, himself a rising prodigy, wrote his parents back in England. - 55 Some of them, though never Feynman, put their faith in Werner Heisenberg’s wistful dictum, “The equation knows best.” - 80 (when published, Schwinger’s work would violate the Physical Review’s guidelines limiting the sprawl of equations across the width of the page) - 92 “It was a unifying principle that would either explain Five stars if you like Feynman, four stars for everyone else :) “Half genius and half buffoon,” Freeman Dyson, himself a rising prodigy, wrote his parents back in England. - 55 Some of them, though never Feynman, put their faith in Werner Heisenberg’s wistful dictum, “The equation knows best.” - 80 (when published, Schwinger’s work would violate the Physical Review’s guidelines limiting the sprawl of equations across the width of the page) - 92 “It was a unifying principle that would either explain everything or explain nothing.” - 123 Their systems of equations represented a submicroscopic world defying the logic of everyday objects like baseballs and water waves, ordinary objects with, “thank God,” as W. H. Auden put it (in a poem Feynman detested): sufficient mass To be altogether there, Not an indeterminate gruel Which is partly somewhere else. - 129 Although he never actually wrote a book, books bearing his name began to appear in the sixties—Theory of Fundamental Processes and Quantum Electrodynamics, lightly edited versions of lectures transcribed by students and colleagues. - 216 The result was published and became famous as “the red books”—The Feynman Lectures on Physics. They reconceived the subject from the bottom up. Colleges that adopted the red books dropped them a few years later: the texts proved too difficult for their intended readers. Instead, professors and working physicists found Feynman’s three volumes reshaping their own conception of their subject. They were more than just authoritative. A physicist, citing one of many celebrated passages, would dryly pay homage to “Book II, Chapter 41, Verse 6.” - 221 With the claim that particle physics was the most fundamental science, they scorned even subdisciplines like solid-state physics—“squalid-state” was Gell-Mann’s contemptuous phrase. - 257 He made islands of practical knowledge in the oceans of personal ignorance that remained: - 276 Later it was said that physicists could be divided into two groups, those who had played with chemistry sets and those who had played with radios. Chemistry sets had their appeal, but a boy like Richard Feynman, loving diagrams and maps, could see that the radio was its own map, a diagram of itself. - 302 His father declared—something he had heard—that electrochemistry was an important new field, and Ritty tried in vain to figure out what electrochemistry was: he made piles of dry chemicals and set live wires in them. A jury-rigged motor rocked his baby sister’s crib. When his parents came home late one night, they opened the door to a sudden clang-clang-clang and Ritty’s shout: “It works!” They now had a burglar alarm. - 482 The adult Richard Feynman became an adept teller of stories about himself, and through these stories came a picture of his father as a man transmitting a set of lessons about science. The lessons were both naïve and wise. Melville Feynman placed a high value on curiosity and a low value on outward appearances. He wanted Richard to mistrust jargon and uniforms; as a salesman, he said, he saw the uniforms empty. - 497 atomos—uncuttable. - 654 We are told when we are young that the earth is round, that it circles the sun, that it spins on a tilted axis. We may accept the knowledge on faith, the frail teaching of a modern secular religion. - 662 Heat had seemed to flow from one place to another as an invisible fluid—“phlogiston” or “caloric.” But a succession of natural philosophers hit on a less intuitive idea—that heat was motion. It was a brave thought, because no one could see the things in motion. - 693 There will never be another Einstein—just as there will never be another Edison, another Heifetz, another Babe Ruth, figures towering so far above their contemporaries that they stood out as legends, heroes, half-gods in the culture’s imagination. There will be, and almost certainly have already been, scientists, inventors, violinists, and baseball players with the same raw genius. But the world has grown too large for such singular heroes. When there are a dozen Babe Ruths, there are none. - 773 Dirac’s end of the dialogue was suitably monosyllabic. (The Journal’s readers must have assumed he was an ancient eminence; actually he was just twenty-seven years old.) “Now doctor will you give me in a few words the low-down on all your investigations?” “No.” “Good. Will it be all right if I put it this way—‘Professor Dirac solves all the problems of mathematical physics, but is unable to find a better way of figuring out Babe Ruth’s batting average’?” “Yes.” ... “Do you go to the movies?” “Yes.” “When?” “In 1920—perhaps also 1930.” - 785 Richard still had some tinkering and probing to do. The Depression broadened the market for inexpensive radio repair, and Richard found himself in demand. In just over a decade of full-scale commercial production, the radio had penetrated nearly half of American households. By 1932 the average price of a new set had fallen to $48, barely a third of the price just three years before. “Midget” - 834 “Our friend Dirac, too, has a religion, and its guiding principle is ‘There is no God and Dirac is His prophet.’” - 1027 No wonder Descartes appended a blanket disclaimer: “At the same time, recalling my insignificance, I affirm nothing, but submit all these opinions to the authority of the Catholic Church, and to the judgment of the more sage; and I wish no one to believe anything I have written, unless he is personally persuaded by the evidence of reason.” - 1042 Although MIT continued to require humanities courses, it took a relaxed view of what might constitute humanities. Feynman’s sophomore humanities course, for example, was Descriptive Astronomy. “Descriptive” meant “no equations.” - 1182 Richard stopped reading, though, long before giving himself the pleasure of rejecting Descartes’s final, equally unsyllogistic argument for the existence of God: that a perfect being would certainly have, among other excellent features, the attribute of existence. - 1207 When an electron absorbed a light quantum, it meant that in that instant it jumped to a higher orbit: the soon-to-be-proverbial quantum jump. When the electron jumped to a lower orbit, it emitted a light quantum at a certain frequency. Everything else was simply forbidden. What happened to the electron “between” orbits? One learned not to ask. - 1282 classically the negatively charged electrons should seek their state of lowest energy and spiral in toward the positively charged nuclei. Substance itself would vanish. Matter would crumple in on itself. Only in terms of quantum mechanics was that impossible, because it would give the electron a definite pointlike position. - 1607 How was anyone to visualize this bloated [uranium] nucleus? …. It was this last image, the liquid drop, that enabled Wheeler and Bohr to produce one of those unreasonably powerful oversimplifications of science, an effective theory of the phenomenon that had been named, only in the past year, fission. (The word was not theirs, and they spent a late night trying to find a better one. They thought about splitting or mitosis and then gave up.) - 1677 Even the kindly genius who became the town’s most famous resident on arriving in 1933 could not resist a gibe: “A quaint ceremonious village,” Einstein wrote, “of puny demigods on stilts.” - 1724 he cultivated his brashness. Not long after he arrived, he had his neighbors at the Graduate College convinced that he and Einstein (whom he had not met) were on regular speaking terms. They listened with awe to these supposed conversations with the great man on the pay phone in the hallway: “Yeah, I tried that ... yeah, I did ... oh, okay, I’ll try that.” Most of the time he was actually speaking with Wheeler. - 1743 Even the physicist has his memories of the past and his aspirations for the future, and no space-time diagram quite obliterates the difference between them. Philosophers, in whose province such speculations had usually belonged, were left with a muddy and senescent set of concepts. The distress of the philosophers of time spilled into their adverbs: sempiternally, hypostatically, tenselessly, retrodictably. - 1944 He did not see why two intelligent people, in love with each other, willing to converse openly, should get caught in arguments. He worked out a plan. Before revealing it to Arline, however, he decided to lay it out for a physicist friend over a hamburger at a diner on the Route 1 traffic circle. The plan was this. When Dick and Arline disagreed intensely about a matter of consequence, they would set aside a fixed time for discussion, perhaps one hour. If at the end of that time they had not found a resolution, rather than continue fighting they would agree to let one of them decide. Because Feynman was older and more experienced (he explained), he would be the one. - 2058 The positron, the antiparticle twin of the electron, had been discovered (in cosmic-ray showers) and named (another modern -tron, short for positive electron) within the past decade. It was the first antiparticle, vindicating a prediction of Dirac’s, based on little more than a faith in the loveliness of his equations. - 2176 Wheeler quoted the White Queen’s remark to Alice: “It’s a poor sort of memory that only works backwards.” - 2223 Few medical researchers understood the rudiments of controlled statistical experimentation. Authorities argued for or against particular therapies roughly the way theologians argued for or against their theories, by employing a combination of personal experience, abstract reason, and aesthetic judgment. - 2365 Marriage was not so simple. It had not occurred to universities like Princeton to leave such matters to their students’ discretion. The financial and emotional responsibilities were considered grave in the best of circumstances. He was supporting himself as a graduate student with fellowships—he was the Queen Junior Fellow and then the Charlotte Elizabeth Proctor Fellow, entitling him to earn two hundred dollars a year as a research assistant. When he told a university dean that his fiancée was dying and that he wanted to marry her, the dean refused to permit it and warned him that his fellowship would be revoked. - 2415 While Feynman remained mostly oblivious, his senior professor Eugene Wigner had for two years been a part of “the Hungarian conspiracy,” with Leo Szilard and Edward Teller, conniving to alert Einstein and through him President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the possibility of a bomb. (“I never thought of that!” Einstein had told Wigner and Szilard.) - 2438 From their windows the Bell researchers could see the George Washington Bridge going up across the Hudson River, and they had traced the curve of the first cable on the glass. As the bridge was hung from it, they were marking off the slight changes that transformed the curve from a catenary to a parabola. Feynman thought it was just the sort of clever thing he might have done. - 2457 They found they were able to bear the pressure of working on the nation’s most fateful secret research project. The senior theoretician crumpled a piece of paper one day, passed it to his assistant, and ordered him to throw it in the wastebasket. “Why don’t you?” the assistant replied. “My time is more valuable than yours,” said Feynman. “I’m getting paid more than you.” They measured the distances from scientist to wastebasket; multiplied by the wages; bantered about their relative value to nuclear science. The number-two man, Paul Olum, threw away the paper. - 2531 Feynman, a cheerful, boyish presence spinning across the campus on his bicycle, scornful of the formalisms of modern advanced mathematics, was running mental circles around him. It wasn’t that he was a brilliant calculator; Olum knew the tricks of that game. It was as if he were a man from Mars. Olum could not track his thinking. He had never known anyone so intuitively at ease with nature—and with nature’s seemingly least accessible manifestations. He suspected that when Feynman wanted to know what an electron would do under given circumstances he merely asked himself, “If I were an electron, what would I do?” - 2538 The light rose and fell across the bowl of desert in silence, no sound heard until the expanding shell of shocked air finally arrived one hundred seconds after the detonation. Then came a crack like a rifle shot, startling a New York Times correspondent at Feynman’s left. “What was that?” the correspondent cried, to the amusement of the physicists who heard him. “That’s the thing,” Feynman yelled back. - 2732 Almost everyone was working in a new field, the theory of explosions, for example, or the theory of matter at extremely high temperatures. The practicality both sobered and thrilled them. The purest mathematicians had to soil their hands. Stanislaw Ulam lamented that until now he had always worked exclusively with symbols. Now he had been driven so low as to use actual numbers, and, even more humbling, they were numbers with decimal points. - 2744 In the minute that the new light spread across that sky, humans became fantastically powerful and fantastically vulnerable. - 2764 work. He had no feeling for experimentation, and his style was unphysical; so, when he made mistakes, they were notoriously silly ones: “Oppenheimer’s formula ... is remarkably correct for him, apparently only the numerical factor is wrong,” a theoretician once wrote acidly. In later physicist lingo a calculation’s Oppenheimer factors were the missing π’s, i’s, and minus signs. - 2810 Richard and Arline went with the first wave, on Sunday, March 28. Instructions were to buy tickets for any destination but New Mexico. Feynman’s contrariety warred for a moment with his common sense, and contrariety won out. He decided that, if no one else was buying a New Mexico ticket, he would. The ticket seller said, Aha—all these crates are for you? - 2839 The recruiters had warned scientists that the army wanted isolation, but no one quite realized what isolation would mean. At first the only telephone link was a single line laid down by the Forest Service. To make a call one had to turn a crank on the side of the box. - 2858 Not all the procedures devised in the name of security helped allay the suspicions of the local population. Any local policeman who pulled over Richard Feynman on the road north of Santa Fe would see the driver’s license of a nameless Engineer identified only as Number 185, residing at Special List B, whose signature was, for some reason, Not required. - 2876 A request for osmium, a dense nonradioactive metal, had to be denied when it became clear that the metallurgists had asked for more than the world’s total supply. - 2911 Challenges and fresh insights came easily from Feynman. He did not wait, as Bethe did, to double-check every intuitive leap. His first idea did not always work. His cannier colleagues developed a rule of thumb: If Feynman says it three times, it’s right. - 2939 Bethe had not just organized the existing knowledge of the subject but had calculated or recalculated every line of theory himself. He had worked on probability theory, on the theory of shock waves, on the penetration of armor by artillery shells (this last paper, born of his eagerness in 1940 to make some contribution to the looming war, was immediately classified by the army so that Bethe himself, not yet an American citizen, could not see it again). - 2943 His Los Alamos colleagues were sometimes amused to hear him, when thinking out loud, howl a sort of whooping glissando when he meant, this rises exponentially; a different sound signified arithmetically. - 3127 The ENIAC had too many tubes to survive. Von Neumann estimated: “Each time it is turned on, it blows two tubes.” The army stationed soldiers carrying spare tubes in grocery baskets. The operators borrowed mean free path terminology from the ricocheting particles of diffusion theory; the computer’s mean free path was its average time between failures. - 3249 Wigner of Princeton had made what was, for a physicist’s physicist in the 1940s, perhaps the ultimate tribute. “He is a second Dirac,” Wigner said, “only this time human.” - 3285 square dances (the same Oxonian, bemused amid the clash of cultures, asked, “What exactly is square about it—the people, the room, or the music?”), - 3310 The censors trod carefully. They tried to turn mail around the day they received it, and they agreed to allow correspondence in French, German, Italian, and Spanish. They felt entitled at least to ask Feynman for the key to the codes. He said he did not have a key or want a key. Finally they agreed that if Arline would enclose a key for their benefit they would remove it before the envelope got to Feynman. - 3322 Inevitably, he then ran afoul of regulation 8(l), a delightfully (to Feynman) self-referential law requiring the censorship of any information concerning these censorship regulations or any discourse on the subject of censorship. He got the message to Arline nonetheless, and her acid sense of fun took over. She started sending letters with holes cut in them or blotches of ink covering words: “It’s very difficult writing because I feel that the —— is looking over my shoulder.” He would respond with numerical fancies, pointing out how peculiarly the decimal expansion of 1/243 repeats itself: .004 115 226 337 448 ... and his increasingly frustrated official audience would have to ensure that the string of digits was neither a cipher nor a technical secret. Feynman explained with subtle glee that this fact had the empty, tautological, zero-information-content quality of all mathematical truths. In one of her mail-order catalogs Arline found a kit for do-it-yourself jigsaw puzzles; the next letter from the Albuquerque sanatorium to Box 1663 came disassembled in a little sack. From another the censors deleted a suspicious-sounding shopping list. Richard and Arline talked about a booby-trapped letter that would begin, “I hope you remembered to open this letter carefully because I have included the Pepto Bismol powder ...” Their letters were a lifeline. No wonder, under watchful eyes, the lovers found ways to make them private. - 3325 This device replaced an older container, the most ancient prototype of the soda machine: customers would open the lid, take a bottle, and honorably drop their coin in a box. The new dispenser struck Feynman as a withdrawal of trust; thus he felt entitled to accept the technological challenge and finesse the mechanism. - 3347 One man, Harry Daghlian, working alone at night, let slip one cube too many, frantically grabbed at the mound to halt the chain reaction, saw the shimmering blue aura of ionization in the air, and died two weeks later of radiation poisoning. Later Louis Slotin used a screwdriver to prop up a radioactive block and lost his life when the screwdriver slipped. Like so many of these worldly scientists he had performed a faulty kind of risk assessment, unconsciously mis-multiplying a low probability of accident (one in a hundred? one in twenty?) by a high cost (nearly infinite). - 3513 There's way more, but it won't fit here :(

  23. 5 out of 5

    Joel

    Missing a bit of the magic of Feynman's own "autobiography", but fills in a lot of the factual information missing from those books and Feynman's interviews and lectures. It's best read as a companion to all the other material available on Feynman. Gleick does an impressive job presenting the science and philosophy of Feynman. I'm also listening to Isaacson's book 'Einstein' now and I see so many similarities between the two characters: their skepticism of the scientific establishment; their desi Missing a bit of the magic of Feynman's own "autobiography", but fills in a lot of the factual information missing from those books and Feynman's interviews and lectures. It's best read as a companion to all the other material available on Feynman. Gleick does an impressive job presenting the science and philosophy of Feynman. I'm also listening to Isaacson's book 'Einstein' now and I see so many similarities between the two characters: their skepticism of the scientific establishment; their desire to understand how things "really" works; a distrust of mathematical formalism without intuitive understanding, yet an advanced faculty with mathematical tools and tricks; their attitude towards women; their ambivalence for publicity; somewhat contradictory political views... But there are some differences between the two: Einstein was deeply cultured and philosophical, while Feynman dispised pretension; Feynman didn't like music except of the percussive variety, while Einstein was a pretty decent violin player; Einstein loved to socialize with everyone, while Feynman had no patience for those he considered unintelligent; Feynman was an atheist and completely ignored his Jewish identity, while Einstein believed in "Spinoza's God" and embraced his Jewishness. By and by, it's interesting to be reading the two in parallel. The author's styles are also somewhat comparable, though I find Isaacson is more presumptuous about reading into his subject's minds, and Gleick revels more in esoteric topics.

  24. 5 out of 5

    Du Nguyen

    After reading Chaos, also by James Gleick, (see my review here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) I was curious whether Genius was better written than what I thought of Chaos. Sadly it wasn't. Like in Chaos, I didn't like the way Gleick writes. It's simply too unfocused on the main topic. In Chaos, it seemed more like a collection of stories and biographies and in Genius, it seems like Gleick wasn't interested at all in Feynmann. The book starts off with the events straight after the con After reading Chaos, also by James Gleick, (see my review here: https://www.goodreads.com/review/show...) I was curious whether Genius was better written than what I thought of Chaos. Sadly it wasn't. Like in Chaos, I didn't like the way Gleick writes. It's simply too unfocused on the main topic. In Chaos, it seemed more like a collection of stories and biographies and in Genius, it seems like Gleick wasn't interested at all in Feynmann. The book starts off with the events straight after the conclusion of the Manhattan project in which Feynmann contributed. And then moving to Feynmann himself in a chronological order of his life. Throughout the book a few themes are touched upon. How Feynmann is always in the search of mental shortcuts, especially in calculation (this was a time before calculators!), how Feynmann has a more physical intuition towards physics rather than his sometimes more mathematically-driven colleagues, how Feynmann was a genius who doesn't accept the solutions of others but have to work through the problems himself and how he left a lot of groundbreaking works behind because he wasn't interested enough in trying to publish it. Other themes that are less mentioned but still prominent enough are the his love to his first wife Arline and her early death and how that continued to some degree to affect him throughout this life, rivalries and adoration of other scientists and the influence of his father on his special way of thinking. At first glance the book is very thorough but it quickly becomes clear that Gleick perhaps tries to do too much. In his coverage of Feynmann, he really gets into the thinking, the way of working of Feynmann, and his life. Until you realize that it's an external look into his achievements and very little on the person himself. Arline, his first love, must have played a major influence in his life, but Gleick doesn't drill into their relationship enough and try to infer how that could have influenced Feynmann. Gleick doesn't give Feynmann a personality other than that of a man who is searching for the ultimate truth and wanted to see the laws of the universe. Gleick mentions Feynmann being accused of sexism, then uses one recommendation that Feynmann did for a woman, and then excusing it with the fact that at that time it was a boy's club. And then spends an entire subchapter on describing his love life and how he could easily pick up women using so-called tricks. Another point that annoyed me was how Gleick always tried to make Feynmann better than anyone else. Sure, Feynmann was probably more intelligent than most people, but even amongst peers? Gleick takes all of the older generation (Dirac, Bohr, Heisenberg and even Einstein) and depicts them as dinosaurs who did well, but not as well as Feynmann who found even more fundamental truths about the universe. Which is a bit strange, because a scientist should be judged on the time that they lived in and not what came after. Feynmann did after all build on top of the discoveries made by this older generation which Gleick likes to compare to Feynmann. Gleick then tries to make every one of Feynmann's contemporaries either a fan (like Dyson) or a rival who disliked Feynmann because he was smarter than them (Schwinger, Gell-Mann). Which is strange since many of these contemporaries also won Nobel Prizes and did significant work that sometimes was the same as Feynmann's even if Feynmann's work won out in the end because of widespread adoption. Lastly Gleick spends a lot of time trying to explain some of the groundbreaking discoveries but it quickly fails for me since he never explained any of the basics needed to understand this. I would not recommend this biography. Gleick doesn't look into Feynmann as a person but seems content to spend half of the biography discussing physics and the other half on Feynmann's achievements. An unbalanced biography which seems to build into the cult of Feynmann (even the title doesn't really shy away from this). I've read that "Surely you're joking Mr Feynmann" which is written by Feynmann himself as a collection of anecdotes is a worthwhile read. And compared to this book, you might as well read a biased account about Feynmann written by Feynmann himself.

  25. 4 out of 5

    Nik Grant

    A bit of a long book for me, over 500 pages. I have a bad habit of reading several books at once and thus progress slowly or not at all. So far, 2/5ths through! Richard Feynman is a colorful character, and often this book brings me inside the little episodes that gave Feynman his reputation, leaving me awestruck and wishing I had known about Feynman sooner. Well, I read "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman," ages ago, but I wish I knew about him at the time he was in High School, failing in some su A bit of a long book for me, over 500 pages. I have a bad habit of reading several books at once and thus progress slowly or not at all. So far, 2/5ths through! Richard Feynman is a colorful character, and often this book brings me inside the little episodes that gave Feynman his reputation, leaving me awestruck and wishing I had known about Feynman sooner. Well, I read "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman," ages ago, but I wish I knew about him at the time he was in High School, failing in some subjects, and advanced beyond his teachers in others, not knowing his destiny. And at college and during the Manhattan project, exhibiting his brilliant genius and wild eccentricities that I perhaps could identify with, if only at 1% of his level. This biography reminds me of Tom Wolfe's, The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test. Tom has perfected the art of putting the reader into the scene as if an informed participant, in possession of the inside knowledge enabling a wink at the unfortunate outsiders who just aren't able to get it. I wish I had the same feeling for the Feynman book, but I find myself on the outside too many times, as I unsuccessfully grapple trying to understand the science. Is it because Gleick can't properly explain? Or is it me? It's not much fun being on the outside, but I'm reading on, looking forward to his Sausalito Bongo Playing stories, and hope the book describes the time he went to a bar and as an experiment deliberately employed techniques to pick up a woman. The way he participated in life was influenced by his father. A walk in the woods, Feynman the boy asking questions. Instead of just giving a name to the tree or the bird, the father would question Feynman what value for the tree were the leaf shapes, or direct Feynman to speculate about the journey the bird undertook migrating. Feynman had a reputation as a master locksmith during the Manhattan project, but his approach wasn't the sanded down fingerprints sensing the tumbler clicks. Approaching the task logically, he thought about people's habits of setting lock combinations to something they could remember, like birth dates, thus giving him some numbers to try. From experimenting he found that combination locks were not precise, and that the number "3" could be selected anywhere from 1 - 5. This reduced number of combinations he would have to try so that even a random combination could be discovered by a methodical 2 hours work. It has been great fun hanging out with Feynman getting interested in Quantum Mechanics back in the day, to hear tales of people who rivaled Einstein, and watch Feynman glance at an equation that someone had been working on for months and declare it wrong - and be right! If this sort of thing thrills you, check it out. Well worth $4, used. Remember, "If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don't understand quantum mechanics." Now that I understand.

  26. 5 out of 5

    Bob Nichols

    Gleick does a good job picturing Feynman, the person, and it's a good antidote to the somewhat disappointing "Surely You're Joking" Feynman's autobiography. Gleick shows a man deadly serious about his work, with little tolerance for group think, pomp and pretension. He pronounced potpourri "pot por eye" and didn't seem to care. Feynman's passion for life is better portrayed by Gleick than by Feynman in his autobiography. There are surprisingly many videos on the internet of Feynman giving lectur Gleick does a good job picturing Feynman, the person, and it's a good antidote to the somewhat disappointing "Surely You're Joking" Feynman's autobiography. Gleick shows a man deadly serious about his work, with little tolerance for group think, pomp and pretension. He pronounced potpourri "pot por eye" and didn't seem to care. Feynman's passion for life is better portrayed by Gleick than by Feynman in his autobiography. There are surprisingly many videos on the internet of Feynman giving lectures and interviews that Gleick uses in this book. However, these videos themselves best display the power of his personality. The video of Feynman playing the bongo drums is particularly striking. Gleick spends some time on the subject of "genius." Given Feynman's evident stature, this was a needless addition to the book. While Gleick provided good biographical information, his descriptions of Feynman's contribution to physics were, in the main, unclear. Feynman, who was not sympathetic to philosophers, was attentive to the hidden assumptions in our language and theory. After Feynman's death, Gleick writes that Feynman's "space in this world was closed" but his "imprint remained: what he knew, how he knows." Gleick's book emphasized that Feynman's contribution was in both areas. That is a nicely worded tribute to Feynman.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Brian

    I felt the author James Gleick did a reasonably good job of capturing exactly what the title states - Feynman's life and science. The earlier part of Feynman's life was the more interesting part (growing up in Rockaway, attending MIT as an undergraduate, his life as a graduate student at Princeton, helping with the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and his time as a faculty member at Cornell). His time at Cal Tech was less interesting and seemingly less productive. I understood Feynman's lack of I felt the author James Gleick did a reasonably good job of capturing exactly what the title states - Feynman's life and science. The earlier part of Feynman's life was the more interesting part (growing up in Rockaway, attending MIT as an undergraduate, his life as a graduate student at Princeton, helping with the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and his time as a faculty member at Cornell). His time at Cal Tech was less interesting and seemingly less productive. I understood Feynman's lack of interest in university politics at both schools, but was put off by his ducking responsibilities that normally are assumed by tenured and senior faculty. His family life after the death of his first wife Arline until he married Gweneth was rocky and irresponsible, and Gleick did not pull any punches describing this period of Feynman's life. But, possibly out of respect for the Feynman family, there was very little description of Feynman and his family life with Gweneth and their children, which disappointed me. One of his last professional roles was as a leading member of the Challenger Space Shuttle accident investigation board, and I felt Gleick described Feynman's contributions to this committee very well.

  28. 4 out of 5

    William March

    My first introduction to Richard Feynman was his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? I enjoyed the quirky man who was always questioning and looking at things in a different way than other people but James Gleick took my understand of Feynman, his life, his brilliance, his viewpoints, and his contributions to science to a whole new level. The biography is a massive amount of information about Feynman but it also contains a great deal about the history and course of quantum physics thr My first introduction to Richard Feynman was his book What Do You Care What Other People Think? I enjoyed the quirky man who was always questioning and looking at things in a different way than other people but James Gleick took my understand of Feynman, his life, his brilliance, his viewpoints, and his contributions to science to a whole new level. The biography is a massive amount of information about Feynman but it also contains a great deal about the history and course of quantum physics through it's beginnings as well as the major players in it's development. It is not always an easy read as the author delves into the strange and esoteric world that is theoretical/particle physics but if such things interest you, it is not a problem. The timeline also feels a little disjointed and his hard to follow sometimes. I found parts of the book very moving, especially towards the very end. The author did a great job of taking a complicated man, a genius, and stripping away all of the myth and idolatry that surrounds his life and abilities, and lets you really see the man, be it a very brilliant man, that was Richard Feynman. It was inspiring and refreshing to briefly glimpse the universe through such original eyes.

  29. 4 out of 5

    David Cerruti

    Genius is up there with Gleick’s best work, Chaos and The Information, and clearly better than the disappointing Faster. There isn’t much new material here, and the Los Alamos days were only briefly covered. Feynman’s own writings, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? , his Lectures on Physics, and his talk Los Alamos From Below (available on audio) give plenty of background. The special thing Gleick gives is context. In particular, Feynman’s interact Genius is up there with Gleick’s best work, Chaos and The Information, and clearly better than the disappointing Faster. There isn’t much new material here, and the Los Alamos days were only briefly covered. Feynman’s own writings, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? , his Lectures on Physics, and his talk Los Alamos From Below (available on audio) give plenty of background. The special thing Gleick gives is context. In particular, Feynman’s interactions with Hans Bethe, Freeman Dyson, Murray Gell-Mann, Julian Schwinger, and other scientists. Those theoretical breakthroughs were a struggle, involving dead ends, debates with colleagues, frustration, and some intangible mix of genius. Genius clearly show Feynman’s great talent as an educator. Gleick’s rambling essay on the nature of genius is not so clear. I recommend hearing or viewing some of the many recording of Feynman’s lectures before reading this or Feynman’s writings. That is not for content, but to experience his phrasing, mannerisms, and style. The next Gleick book on my list is Isaac Newton.

  30. 5 out of 5

    Tony Boyles

    I picked this up because I had just finished Lawrence Krauss' Quantum Man (another biography of Feynman) and I wanted to compare their content. Krauss is a physicist where Gleick is a writer, and that shines through in their respective focuses. While Krauss spent much time discussing Feynman's substantive contributions to science, Gleick devotes more space to the narrative of Feynman's life, with more (and more detailed) accounts of Feynman anecdotes. Both are fascinating. In the end, however, I I picked this up because I had just finished Lawrence Krauss' Quantum Man (another biography of Feynman) and I wanted to compare their content. Krauss is a physicist where Gleick is a writer, and that shines through in their respective focuses. While Krauss spent much time discussing Feynman's substantive contributions to science, Gleick devotes more space to the narrative of Feynman's life, with more (and more detailed) accounts of Feynman anecdotes. Both are fascinating. In the end, however, I can't endorse either above the other. If you are a physicist, read Krauss'. If you are a physicist and already know everything Feynman did, read Gleick's. If you are not a physicist, read Gleick's. If you are not a physicist and short on time, read Krauss' (it's about half as long as Gleick's).

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