Genius by James Gleick [A Review]

We no longer have the words to describe Richard Feynman. ‘Brilliant’, ‘unique’ and ‘enigmatic’ do not serve him. Even the word ‘genius’ may have lost its power to describe him. Nevertheless, Genius is the title of James Gleick’s biography of the remarkable Richard Feynman. As the power of the word has depreciated through overuse, the status of the man has perhaps overtaken it.

If you were a young woman studying at Cornell University in the years after the Second World War, you may have come across an unusual sight – a certain young man who seemed bolder than most when it came to flirting with young women. Though he looked younger than his 27-28 years, he was certainly no undergraduate. In fact he was a member of the faculty, though that did not stop him from attending undergrad and freshman social events and dating students. And he had the most bizarre yet intriguing pick-up line: ‘I helped build the atomic bomb!’.

However, he never dated these women for long. After a few dates, they all ‘turned to dust’ for him. That was because, in reality, he was a broken man. His first love, and wife, had recently died. His father had died not long after too and left him feeling bitter and estranged.

Though he was undeniably exceptionally intelligent, his work had stalled too. Before he had even finished his PhD, his reputation was already such that he was invited to join the Manhattan Project during the war. Despite the technical challenges of designing and building the first nuclear weapon, it was a severe detour for a man just beginning his career and finding his way back to the path he was on was proving difficult.

His anxiety about failing to live up to such expectations was reaching a peak […] He had never claimed to be an Einstein, he told himself. It was their mistake. For a moment he felt lighter. Some of his guilt seemed to lift away.

In fact, given that the ‘beat’ era was just around the corner, it could be said that this young man was beat. There was even an episode that sounds straight out of Kerouac’s On the Road, if the characters were scientists, where he and Freeman Dyson drove cross country at high speed, picking up hitchhikers, staying in dinghy motels and trying to meet women.

Despite these and other setbacks, diversions and faults, Richard Feynman would go on to be one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century, second only to Einstein in the eyes of some. Though he would win the Nobel Prize for Physics, such were his many achievements that, like Einstein, he could have won it a few times over if the philosophy of the prize were different and a full list of his accomplishments is astonishing. Also like Einstein, Feynman has been heavily mythologised and the first task of any biographer must be to sift through the legend and find something real.

It is a difficult search for the real Feynman. He is so much submerged beneath a legend, much of it of Feynman’s own construction through his books, his lectures, his tricks and the impression he could not help leaving on those around him.

Feynman resented the polished myths of most scientific history, submerging the false steps and halting uncertainties under a surface of orderly intellectual progress, but he created a myth of his own. When he had ascended to the top of the physicist’s mental pantheon of heroes, stories of his genius and his adventures became a sort of art form within the community. Feynman stories were clever and comic. They gradually created a legend from which their subject (and chief purveyor) seldom emerged.

James Gleick has done an admirable service of searching for Feynman. Despite an aversion for mythologising and sentimentality, those who nevertheless indulge the legendary about Feynman will still find much to enjoy in this take on his life. Although it could have included a lot more scientific detail, it does not let the general reader off the hook in appreciating the science involved. And though it does not lose sight of its subject, such is that subject that it must also give space to consider broader questions of context.

As the reader moves through this mostly chronological telling of Feynman’s life – from his youth in Far Rockaway, his time at MIT and Princeton, before he was at Los Alamos working on the bomb and then his time at Cornell and Caltech – you get a sense of the essence of Feynman. His brilliance was most often demonstrated by his ability to approach problems from unique perspectives and strike directly at the heart of them.

Gleick also shares Feynman’s flaws. Years wasted through lack of focus and direction. The many, many women he was with after the death of his first wife, including students, prostitutes, and the wives of colleagues, that could have easily been his undoing. His very thick file with the FBI at the height of the Cold War when his former superior, Oppenheimer, was being denounced. But, almost like a novelist, Gleick is reluctant to spell out his conclusions. Instead, he writes as if he is building up to such a point, but then leaves it for the reader to make the final connection.

As I read Genius, I was met by a series of coincidences that affected my reading. The first was that while reading this book I finally got around to watching the Oscar-winning film The Theory of Everything. The film is about the relationship between British Physicist Stephen Hawking and his first wife Jane Wilde and is based on her memoir. In particular, the film covers Hawking’s battle with motor neuron disease and the couple’s efforts to thwart the disease’s effect on Hawking’s life and work, and their relationship.

Feynman’s life has a similarly painful but humanising story to tell of a physicist, a love and a disease. But in Feynman’s case, it was his wife who was enduring a long and painful struggle with tuberculosis at the same time that he was in Los Alamos developing the bomb. Feynman’s story also has a far more tragic ending, with his wife, Arline, dying at just around the time the antibiotics that might have saved her were being developed. Theirs was a relationship that neither of their families supported (nor did Feynman’s university; Princeton) and they had to get married alone. Like the appeal of The Theory of Everything, it is this story of adversity and tragedy that may appeal to those who otherwise may not pick up a biography about a physicist.

Another coincidence I encountered while reading this book was seeing the anniversary of the Trinity Test in the news. One thing I was surprised to learn from this book was how involved and important Feynman was to the Manhattan Project. I had thought that, as a relatively young academic and not yet a PhD, Feynman was underutilised and spent his time playing pranks and learning to crack safes. But he had a much larger role. He was put in charge of the team that worked on the diffusion problem, banging away at mechanical calculators in the age before computers and learning how to manage with only approximate answers. As the stockpile of fissionable material built up, the possibility of an accidental explosion was not being appreciated until Feynman devised safety precautions.

[Feynman] realised the plant was headed for catastrophe. At some point the buildup of uranium would cause a nuclear reaction that would release heat and radioactivity at near-explosive speed […] 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 otherwise unsolvable integral equation – that would let engineers make a conservative approximation, on the spot, of the safe levels of bomb material stored at various geometric layouts. A few people, long afterward, thought he had saved their lives.

Feynman found his way back from his loss of direction after the war by rediscovering the pleasure of learning things for the sake of learning and the joy of figuring things out for himself. His success was in large part due to this way he would invent his own methods rather than rely of the methods of those who came before him. Despite more diversions and distractions, the following years were extraordinarily productive. His main achievements were in the areas of quantum electrodynamics, superfluid helium, weak-force interactions and strong-force interactions. But he also made contributions to almost anything he tried his hand at.

He tried not to gloat, but he was afire. He had completed in hours a superior version of a calculation on which another physicist had staked a major piece of his career […] he possessed a crossbow in a world of sticks and clubs.

A big strength of this book is that it provides the historical scientific context as it tells its story. You might not think that much context is required for a biography of someone who lived in the middle of the twentieth century, but science has progressed so quickly that it is surprising how much the reader needs to appreciate about worlds that vanished as quickly as they appeared.

[Feynman] invented a new and general method of solving third-order differential equations. Second-order had been manageable for several centuries. Feynman’s invention was precise and practical. It was also doomed to a quick obsolescence in an age of machine computation, as was, for that matter, the skill of mental arithmetic that did so much to establish Feynman’s legend.

For example, for the generation of physicists that Feynman belonged to, the radio was very influential. The radio was an almost magical device, yet one that could be taken apart to display its working parts. That era is long gone; there is little a precocious youth of today could learn from taking apart a cellphone.

As a student, fields like applied mathematics and quantum mechanics did not exist for Feynman to study and it was a struggle for him to get his hands on the latest ideas and experimental results. The fields we now call physics, engineering, philosophy, mathematics and even theology, were still yet to separate fully from each other and Einstein at this time was still considered to be a ‘mathematician’ not a ‘physicist’.

Feyman’s lifetime covered radical change in the way the public viewed science. From an era of optimism in its promise of new industries and improved quality of life as he visited the 1933 World’s Fair as a child; to an era of fear and awe at the birth of the space and nuclear ages; to a loss of faith in the 80’s following Chernobyl, 3-Mile Island, Bopal and Challenger. As I say, Gleick’s appreciation and inclusion of all this context is a great strength of this book.

I also liked that the book does what more science books ought to – share not just the stories of success, but also the dead-ends, wrong-turns and failed ideas that are inevitably part of the story. Feynman would have liked that too.

The book does not have much to say about Feynman once he was past his prime, through the 70’s and 80’s, until the final time Feynman entered the public consciousness – the investigation into the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. By now Feynman was dying from two rare cancers that he refused to believe had anything to do with having witnessed the first testing of a nuclear bomb without protection. In keeping with much of his life, Feynman’s participation in the investigation of the Challenger disaster is filled with his typical subversion of authority, cutting to the heart of the issue and showmanship. Classic Feynman.

There is much else I liked about this book and Feynman, but I may leave it here.

I have only a couple of minor quibbles about this book. The first is that Gleick is another author with a penchant for using unnecessarily obscure adjectives and I do not mean the scientific or technical terms but elsewhere which makes it seem doubly unnecessary.

Secondly, I think the author could have done more when making those explanations of the scientific aspects. I think the book could have had more diagrams and the explanations could have been better. Another coincidence that occurred while I was reading this book was that a YouTube channel I follow, PBS Space Time, began posting a series of videos on Feynman-related topics. If you have a few minutes, I’d recommend checking out their video on Feynman Diagrams:

To be fair, Gleick takes a diversion for a few pages in the book to discuss the problem of the inability to visualise quantum phenomena. It is one of the great passages of the book, with quotes and experiences from many great scientists. But the explanation of the basics of Feynman diagram vertices in the middle of the PBS Space Time video is pretty easy to understand and easy to picture yet this book did not attempt anything similar which was a real missed opportunity.

The highlight of the book for me was a brilliant mid-book essay from Gleick on ‘genius’. He describes the origins of the word from describing someone who performed magic (from the same root as ‘genie’) to a person who performs feats of intellectual innovation. He contrasts the European and American concepts of it and its role, if any, in scientific breakthroughs and revolutions. He discusses the inconsistencies and paradoxes of our common understanding of it; the overemphasis of originality over cleverness, of placing constraints on imagination, the effect of being overburdened with knowledge, the diminishing value of the word through overuse and much more.

Gleick also suggests that the age of geniuses may have ended. If I may add some thoughts of my own here; it seems fairly clear to me that, if you were to press someone to name a famous recent scientist, they would name someone who is more famous as an educator and populariser of science than as a contributor to science. From the time when Feynman’s career was on the wane, the most popular ‘scientists’ have been people like Carl Sagan, David Attenborough, Richard Dawkins, Oliver Sacks, Stephen Hawking, Bill Nye or Neil deGrasse Tyson. To be fair, many of them have made worthwhile contributions to science, but that is not why they are known. Meanwhile, Steven Weinberg, who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1979 for his contribution in unifying two of the fundamental forces of the universe, is far less well-known. Science and technology is now far more collaborative too. We can say with greater confidence who was responsible for the inventions of the telephone, the radio or the lightbulb than we can for the television, the PC or the cellphone.

Feynman, and to a lesser extent, Einstein straddle this transition. Einstein enjoyed celebrity status. Feynman, through his legend, his lectures and books, also enjoyed a place in popular culture. But both have also been rated by physicists as among the top ten physicists of all time. The future of such celebrity, however, belongs more to those who popularise science than those who discover or invent.

Gleick’s essay on genius is a passage worth reading the book for and worth returning to for its thoughts. Again, the question of whether Feynman matches this description of ‘genius’, whether we may ever see another like him, is one Gleick leaves up to the reader.

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