Originally published on Goodreads
Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynmann
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.
2 out of 5 stars.