Thursday, March 10, 2016

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick - Book Review

I've often read about Richard Feynman, the Novel Prize winning American physicist and mathematician, who's noted both for his scientific achievements, his wit, and his idiosyncratic behavior, but have avoided this biography, thinking that a mind of such breadth and achievement in a field so mysterious to me would not be something I would enjoy. But I knew it would contain something to teach me. In Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick, originally published by Random House in 1992 and widely available in used and e-book formats (Open Road Media, 489 pages, Kindle edition $4.27) I found myself to be both fascinated and entertained in coming to grips with a mind that searched for an understanding of the universe alongside the likes of Newton and Einstein.

While the science and mathematics in this fine book completely elude me, the genius of the man as well as his faults, humor, and passion for seeking and understanding of creation's deepest secrets shine though as a result of Gleick's wonderful writing and ability to place the un-undertandable into language, analogy, and metaphor to make Feynman's work almost comprehensible, while the complex, difficult man emerges in whole. As with other fine biographies, the reader willing to become immersed within the character, comes away with a deeper understanding of the subject as well as the self.

The outline of Feynman's life reveals a man born to secular Jewish parents in Queens, NY in 1918 and raised in a slightly unconventional family that valued seeking and problem solving. He attended public schools where he quickly excelled in math and science, as well as demonstrating a slightly skewed, always intellectually creative mind that kept on grinding out ideas for the next fifty-some years. He attended MIT for his undergraduate degree and Princeton to complete his PhD. Throughout his academic career, from high school through university, he was always recognized as having a mind forging beyond others because of its unique flexibility and facility at finding connections others did not see. His work on the Manhattan project, building the atomic bomb, and later at the Cal Tech, where he was a popular and dynamic lecturer were always groundbreaking. He shared in the 1965 Novel Prize.

Beyond Feynman's superb academic work, including his ability to see connections none had imagined before him, the interest in Feynman remains strong because of his personal life and the personal side of his professional life. Feynman had a quirky sense of humor, a wide and varied sex life, loved Brazilian music and drumming. Feynman married his highschool sweetheart Arline Greenbaum, who was ill with tuberculosis at the time. The marriage was, apparently more spiritual than connubial because of his fear of a pregnancy's risk to her life. Their letters are models of love and devotion. After Arline's death, he married twice more. One surprising, to me, element was Feynman's participation, late in his life, in the investigation of the 1986 Challenger disaster. His research and insights proved that the disaster, which cost the lives of seven American astronauts, grew from NASA's concern for public relations which over-rode safety concerns, causing the inevitable failure of the O-rings connecting the stages to each other and leading to the crash. His work was relegated to an appendix, where it received little notice.

James Gleick

However, the outlines of Feynman's life are not what makes Genius such a wonderful book, nor are the accounts of his achievements in mathematics and theoretical physics. There's another genius at work in this book, too: the author James Gleick, recognized as “one of the great science writers of all time.” Gleick has the ability to find analogies and make relatively clear the extremely difficult and abstract ideas Feynman expressed for the first time and then developed from a theoretical base into living experiments and real weapons. His lively writing maintains interest and challenges the imagination. Gleick had access to original sources including Feynman's letters to his wife and the reminiscences of his teachers, fellow scholars, and former students from throughout his well-documented career. In fact, fully a third of this book contains footnotes and resources for other reading, so don't feel daunted by its length. Gleick is the author of a number of other highly regarded science books, and has been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award three times each.

The Life andScience of Richard Feynman by James Gleick was originally published by Random House in 1992. Although it is twenty-three years ago, the book is still relevant to today, interesting, and wonderfully readable. James Gleick is a master researcher who turns his work into spun gold. In the end, Richard Feynman comes alive through James Gleick's portrayal of him. For anyone interested in science, scientists, or a great read, this is a must-read book. It is available in all formats, new and used. Recently, I've found Thrift Books to be my go to source for used books in good condition. This book is available through Thrift Books beginning at a cost of $3.79. They have been completely reliable, and I recommend this resource for people whose reading is done on a budget.