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Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
Many of Feynman's friends attacked this warts-and-all biography when it came out, saying it did not give a true picture of the man. Indeed, John and Mary Gribbens' biography of Feynman, which is much slimmer than this volume, seemed to be motivated almost entirely by their desire to tell the story as they saw it. While I only know Richard Feynman through the writings of others, I think the Gribbens' and other friends of Feynman were wrong in their criticisms.

The public Feynman is based mainly on newspaper stories, the anecdotes collected by Feynman friend Ralph Leighton (Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) and What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character) and what they portray is a puckish boy genius turned elder statesman. But that's a very shallow picture of the man. Feynman was very human, with human failings, and Gleick does an excellent job of showing us the real man, both his failures and his triumphs, his shortcomings and his good qualities. Gleick also does an excellent job of describing Feynman's accomplishments in physics for the lay reader- better even than the Gribbens.

If they only Richard Feynman you know is the one portrayed in Ralph Leyton's collections or anecdotes, or the elderly figure seen in the NASA hearings on the Columbia disaster, I would strongly recommend "Genius." It's a rich book, full of insight into Feynman's character, and truly delivers a more complete picture of the man that you'll find elsewhere.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 16, 2007
Format: Paperback
If you love Dr.Feynman and physics, you will love this book too. Impeccably written it charts out four phases in his life,from birth, early education, Los Alamos and the final struggle with cancer which apparently had its origins in the Manhattan project owing to prolonged exposure to radiation. Woven into the body of the text is the same light heartedness and banter that so characterized his life and work but brings home the rampant brilliance of this man in all its profundity. His uncanny sense of bringing the truth, far removed from the official verbose so much in evidence when he was a member of the commission that probed the Challenger disaster, is the recurring theme throughout the book. Gleick illustrates that beyond the free sprit that seems to stick out, an intensely personal side shows up as his tribulations when wife Arlene battled tuberculosis and he frantically worked at Los Alamos .The last few sections are poignant, when a cancer struck Dr.Feynman realizes that his hopes of visiting an exotic but secluded Soviet territory Tuva was fast vanishing, caught in the foliage of government bureaucracy, he so detested; the visa did arrive but by then it was a little too late. Even in the final moment his spirit shines through; his last words being, "I would hate to die twice, it's so boring", as the end came at 10:34 pm, 15th of Feb, 1988 at the UCLA medical college. James Gleick has composed a wonderful book of one of the most inscrutable characters of the world of physics. Surely worth reading!!
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
Format: Paperback
James Gleick's life of Feynman comes highly recommended to anyone concerned with the scholarship of safe-cracking , impromptu Brazilian samba ensembles and the fineries of quantum electrodynamics . Space shuttle design and the Manhattan Project are also included , so that no critic can claim in any seriousness that Feynman lacked balanced life-experience. This book is highly and competently researched ( 70-odd pages devoted to notes , acknowledgements and bibliography ) but it is no mere archive - there is a sense of presence in Gleick's narrative which , at times , borders on the voyeuristic (see , for example , the chapters detailing the correspondence between Feynman and his first wife Arline while he , shrouded in systematic censorship and effectively isolated , worked on the Bomb and she died slowly of consumption.) His account of Feynman's physics is similarly uncanny, making esoteric and , dare I say it , deep , theoretical material accessible to non-specialists . Perhaps this success in transmitting his ideas in a second-hand fashion is due to some aspect of the nature of Feynman's thinking - he was what might be called a ' freehand ' theoretician , prepared to step outside the realm of the accepted processes in order to see new ways of achieving old results , and thus to reconfigure the family-tree of physics and open new branches of inquiry . His closest rival for much of his career , Julian Schwinger , also comes across as his antithesis - Gleick , in any case , would have us believe in two incompatible minds , in Feynman the intuitive doodler and Schwinger the rigorous draftsman , both working to slice the same pie but with different mental utensils , one with a machete and the other with a laser . This was an academic showdown of the first order and one of the more compelling themes in the book . Compiling the life of an arch-scientist with a penchant for percussion and amateur safe-cracking is no mean feat . Feynman was enigmatic as an individual , to say the least , but this book goes! a lot of the way to answering , in the positive , the old freshman question " IS FEYNMAN HUMAN ? "
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on July 25, 1999
Format: PaperbackVerified Purchase
As another reviewer states, it offers an interesting glimpse into Feynman's early life. However, I found it became a bit ponderous when it talked about physics. Not as good at explaining concepts as Gleick's earlier (and, IMHO, better) book "Chaos".
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on September 16, 1999
Format: Paperback
Detailed information on the subject and Richard Feynman. Well written, lots of quotes and stories. The best Feynman biography I've read.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on September 18, 2006
Format: Paperback
As someone who barely made it through high school physics, I approached this book with some trepidation, but much like Sagan, Gleick gives understandable insight into the issues during the development of particle physics. Feynman's genius shows itself for a much longer period of his life than most physicists whose major contributions occur early in their careers. Feynman's passion for real solutions to real problems is made clear in dozens of anecdotes in the book. Three cheers and five stars for Gleick and Feynman. One marvels at both while reading this book. Insightful and incredible.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 1, 2013
Format: Kindle EditionVerified Purchase
The focus of the book is more on the science of Richard Feynman. Although I could follow the science, given my undergraduate studies in math and physics back in the 1970s, the detailed accounts make rather dry reading. I was hoping to see more about the life of Richard Feynman as a person.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on February 23, 2011
Format: Paperback
This biography is highly recommended. The reader can empathise and enjoy a life journey, even sigh at the end. Gleick follows the formula that equations don't often work in science exposition. Therefore a lot of Feynmann's theoretical work is covered, but not always at the level needed to achieve reasonable comprehension. Gleick also writes beyond the Feynmann story to examine the scientific, philosophical and historical context of his work. This approach is nothing new in physicists' biographies and, if this is the level of insights that the reader is seeking, Gleick does a fabulous job. Feynmann's family and childhood, his unique approach to study and work, his career decisions, the role of other people in his scientific and personal life, and his `beliefs' are revealed candidly and warmly. Gleick begins his Acknowledgements with the statement that he had never met Feynmann, yet his insights into the man are compelling. Feynmann's reaction to an incident at his father's burial will strike a chord with many. Gleick often notes Feynmann's stated disapproval of philosophy, and then goes on to show that Feynmann had a robust and insightful philosophy of his own.

Feynmann's was a time when the role of science was in flux - the Manhattan Project, McCarthyism, the future of physics - and Gleick doesn't steer away from commentary. It is necessary for a biographer to form opinions, and Gleick is cautious in doing so, exhaustively referencing his sources, almost paragraph by paragraph, at the end of the book to improve readability.

For the reader who wishes a better understanding of some the technical aspects of Feynmann's work and would still enjoy an historical context, note that Gleick draws on discussions with Silvan Schweber and the manuscript of his since published `QED and the Men Who Made It'.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 31, 2005
Format: Paperback
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman is the subject of this well-written and thorough biography by James Gleick. Feynman's life proves to be a fascinating one, and Gleick delves without hesitation into his eccentricities, clearly portraying the way his offbeat personality influenced his interactions and conflicts with other members of the science community, notably R. J. Oppenheimer, Hans Bethe, Julian Schwinger, Freeman Dyson, and Murray Gell-Mann. The book is divided into sections according to where Feynman lived and worked, giving a clear-cut path to trace throughout his life. From his early life in Far Rockaway, a small town in New York, through his schooling at MIT and Princeton; from his work at Los Alamos with that fated group of scientists who produced the world's first nuclear weapon to his teaching job at Cornell, and from his work at Caltech and with NASA to his death from cancer in 1988, Gleick illustrates the remarkable achievements of this man who affected all with whom he came into contact, for better or worse. Although for the most part vivid and witty, Gleick's prose tends to bog down from time to time, especially when he enters the abstract world of quantum mechanics, which formed the basis of Feynman's work. The author's explanations of theories and concepts put forth by Feynman as well as work submitted by his contemporaries can quickly cause a layman to have to reread sections several times, and one almost wishes Gleick would curtail these sections; however, once understood (and it is possible!), the explanations are invaluable in appreciating Feynman's work. Despite this, Gleick does an admirable job of recounting Richard Feynman's accomplishments without glossing over his shortcomings. When reading <u>Genius</u>, it is easy to see why Gleick would be attracted to this colorful character as the subject of a biography. Feynman's life was so full and so multidimensional, and his discoveries in the world of physics were such landmarks, that it is impossible not to admire him - especially once you manage to grasp the theories he put forth, which are truly enlightening regarding the physical world around us. For anyone with any background or interest in physics, if only at a high-school introductory level, this inspiring novel is an absorbing and thought-provoking read detailing arguably the most influential life in the physics community in the twentieth century.
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16 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on December 31, 2002
Format: Paperback
This is a fun book, hard to put down, and is comparable to a romance novel or a so-called "chick flick"--with unfortunately about as much depth. If you are a Feynman fan or a Physics fan or someone who is considering Physics as a career--this book is 5 stars. What the author omits one can can figure out,if you already know quite a bit. I dropped out of Physics as I preferred reading about the great Physicists to working through the problems in the Electricity and Magnetism or Quantum Mechanics texts, and did not have the feel for all those waveicles.
Since my brother was for a time a theoretical Physicist I heard much of the Feynman folklore. Gleick captured the folklore quite well. But the power and influence of the famous lectures given by Feynman to Caltech freshman and sophomore Physics students(known simply as Feynman's Lectures)was understated. During the last half of the 60s and through the 70s it would be hard not to find Physics Graduate students at the elite Universities (Chicago,MIT and so on) intensely studying Feynman's lectures as preparation for their PHD comps. This is so well known that the conceitful dream of other introductory text writers such as Samuelson in Economics, is to have the same role in their field.
The real shortcoming of the book is that it is a 90% solution. It would be interesting to have compared him with other Physics theoreticans--as a group. They are quite similar in many ways. You look at the famous and not so famous in that area and they have a set of commonalities. They will have self-taught themselves Mathematical subjects and found those challenges less exciting than understanding the physical world. In fact,that is the rationale of their existence, at least for a time. They all need to be do-it-themselfers. Many are great puzzle solvers in other contexts. They almost all had a certain kind of nurturing to encourage them to develop their talents along the way. The author leaves the false impression that these are special characteristics of Feynman. They are not--he is special enough in his achievement.
The title genius in that already extremely intelligent group goes to those, like Feynman's fellow Noble recipients for developing Quantum ElectroDynamics (QED),who learned the regular stuff/theory so well they were smart enough to figure out difficult solutions for the problem that was implicit in the prior theory. The rarer type of genius is the Feynman treated the problem as if he had figured out just enough to know what the problem was and used novel means (now known as Feynman diagrams)to solve the problem--ignoring the powerful but obscuring technology developed by those who came before and developing new more usable tools.
Despite its originality Feynman did not regard the QED in the same light as his discovery (independent initially of his fellow Cal Tech professor Gell Mann)of a theory of weak interactions. But he regarded his Lectures in Physics as his great contribution--no where could you get that from Gleick. A very interesting oversight was that Gell-Mann suffered writers block but was emersed in the standard literature. But Feynman often worked things out but would not work them out in publishable form but when they were forced to work together they did very well indeed. This relationship should have been explored in more depth. I wondered did Gell-Mann serve as the filter to let some of the standard work or not?
The late great contemplative Thomas Merton kept himself cut out from the news while in the monestary except that which was shared with him by friends such as the Berrigan brothers and James Forest. Did Feynman have similar friends or associates who informed him of problems out in the Physics world he might be interested in? Feynmann appeared to have few lifelong friends beyond family if you listened only to Gleick, but some of his sometime collaborators seemed to have been friends, but not of long standing.
This book generates more questions than answers and adds too little to the knowledge of Feynman but synthesizes quite well. Good work, well written but not up to the clarity or completeness standards of the subject.
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