Genius, James Gleick

Vintage, 1992, 531 pages, C$21.00 tpb, ISBN 0-679-74704-4

There is a chapter, “In Search of Genius”, more than midway through James Gleick’s Genius, which dissects the nature of brilliance and asks where, in today’s world, are the dozens of world-shaking geniuses we could expect from a world packed with more than five billion humans. From a Western European pool of less than a billion souls, the past has produced Shakespeare, Newton, Mozart; where are today’s geniuses, and why aren’t they more distinctive? [P.313]

It’s a disingenuous question in many ways (today’s world is more egalitarian, more complicated, more specialized, more susceptible to trivia, etc. than the times in which the afore-mentioned geniuses lived) but it’s a question well worth pondering whenever we’re considering the life of Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, a man who in many ways exemplified the type of genius everyone can recognize as such; he made significant contributions to modern physics, had a career that spanned from the Manhattan project to the Challenger investigation, including a significant rewriting of quantum theory. Showman to the Nth degree, Feynman cracked safes, played bongos, dated abundantly and tried to annoy whoever he could. And that’s just the back-cover version of his life.

Genius is a curious book, an attempt to cover his life that deliberately avoids some of the better-known stories that Feynman himself wrote down in his own memoirs. (Which is useful only those those who have read Feynman’s memoirs, obviously.) James Gleick covers the scientist’s life from birth to death, with plenty of asides on the state of scientific knowledge during the twentieth century. The amount of material crammed in the book is awe-inspiring, and Genius thankfully comes complete with a comprehensive index as well as two separate (and extensive) bibliographies.

It’s a fascinating read in no small part thanks to Feynman himself. Tragedy (his first marriage) and comedy (safe-cracking at Los Alamos), genius (how his drawers were packed with “substandard” research that would mean publication for other scientists) and conflict (his gentle feud with Schwinger over the dominant interpretation of quantum mechanics) all intervene at one time or another in his life, and the best that Gleick can do is to get out of the way and let the story tell itself.

Let’s not kid around; you will need a physics degree to follow Gleick’s description of the spheres of science in which Feynman evolved. But that’s only a small part of his life: the rest of the book is unusually readable and accessible. Feynman makes a sympathetic hero, a genius that wasn’t without flaws (his romantic life after the death of his first wife, for instance, could be seen as an exercise in pure cynicism) but whose comprehension of the world did much to advance ours. The portrait of the various scientists with whom he interacted (Gell-Mann, Dyson, Oppenheimer, etc.) are just as interesting, but obviously we know who holds center-stage. The biography deftly balances science with life and gives a good portrait of a man as a scientist, not just the other way around. Inspiring reading, perhaps especially for physics students and other fledging scientists.

Ultimately, Genius is a fitting tribute to one of the twentieth century’s foremost scientist, perhaps the last time someone could fly around from one part of physics to another and make key contributions in passing. Until the next genius, of course, for the question remains: Where are the other Feynmans? Worse; if there are Feynmans in the world today, will we have to wait until their death to know about them?

[September 2004: Yes, Feynman’s own “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” is indeed a recommended prerequisite for Genius. Ironically enough, it’s more accessible, more representative and a great deal funnier than Gleick’s work.]

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