Samuel's Reviews > Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

Genius by James Gleick
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Apr 04, 2012

it was amazing
Read from April 04 to 06, 2012

Feynman the theoretical physicist. Feynman the bongo player. Feynman the lover mired in tragedy, the playboy, the insensitive geek. Feynman the man who never lost his childish, wide-eyed wonder of the world. Feynman the teacher. But above all, Feynman, the genius.

In Genius, James Gleick takes the reader through the life of the great Richard Feynman, from his humble beginnings in Far Rockaway, to his time working on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, and finally, his famous days at Caltech. Gleick shies away from the many anecdotes Feynman told (perhaps created?) about himself, but digs through this facade to get a better look at this larger-than-life character. We learn about Feynman's human competitiveness, his fear of not being able to find the right problems, his tendency to work everything out for himself. Yet we also see the things that really made him a genius: lightning fast manipulation of equations, an inspired creativity coupled with an incredible work ethic, and an insatiable curiosity to understand everything.

The book also presents some of Feynman's scientific ideas, trying its best to explain in layman's terms the various contributions Feynman made to the field - from Wheeler-Feynman absorber theory to the Feynman diagrams and path integrals which now bear his name. The evolution of his thoughts as tracked in Genius demonstrates how Feynman's ideas were often revolutionary and not easily accepted by his colleagues. I found it very helpful in understanding the motivation behind the unusual approaches and explanations in the red books (The Feynman Lectures in Physics), which often have a link to what he had worked on previously.

Working from an already colourful character, Gleick cleverly ties the various threads of Feynman's personal and scientific lives together, revealing a tapestry of what may be the most "extraordinarily special person in the universe". His digression on what makes a genius, and why, despite the Earth's current burgeoning population, the flow of geniuses seems to have dried to a mere trickle, is highly thought-provoking. The only things I would have liked to see in the book are an account of Feynman's incredible endeavour to reach Tuva (which was completely omitted), as well as a more detailed exposition of Feynman's thoughts and reactions while giving the freshman lectures he is now so famous for.

Overall, possibly one of the best scientific biographies I've read.
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