Genius book review

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard FeynmanGenius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I could read biographies like this all day long, everyday. And I certainly tried to do that with James Gleick’s Genius. It’s not just that it’s written well and thoroughly researched with great details, anecdotes, and quotes. It’s that the character at the center—Richard Feynman—is so compelling. As Gleick shows, Feynman worked hard to make himself into the iconoclastically interesting person he was. He held on to his roots as a bit of a bumpkin, growing up just beyond the edges of New York City. He hated most music but loved rhythm and became an accomplished bongos player. And as a scientist, he refused to follow anything that looked “fashionable.” I loved the quotes from Feynman where he states his role as a scientist isn’t to explain how other physicists solved a problem, it was to go and actually solve problems. He claimed to only read contemporary journal articles in physics so far as he could understand the problem, then he would go off and try to solve it himself using his own methods.

Gleick attempts to draw out larger lessons in the book about the nature of genius and creativity. This was the only disjointed part of the book I thought. The sub-chapter on genius seems like a standalone essay dropped in to justify the title of the book or to reuse material to fill out the biography. That said, one of the key reflections on Feynman’s approach, supported by accounts from his peers, was his willful ignorance of scholarship in his field at multiple points in his career. He seemed to actively avoid it, and through that naiveté perhaps cultivate the opportunity for original thought. This is a pretty profound insight, especially to an academic like me who is expected to know the field as part of the job. But knowing too much can be a recipe for stagnation as everything appears to have been solved or understood already, or new problems simply require someone else’s method rather than a novel one. I’m going to be thinking about this idea for a long time.

This biography does a great job of offering context from the era of physics and especially the role of the Manhattan Project, which really changed the course of science and the careers of Feynman and his contemporaries. Gleick offers mini-biographies of many of these contemporaries who most closely worked and/or competed with Feynman on the central discoveries of quantum physics: notably Julian Schwinger and Murray Gell-Mann. And letters and interviews fill out how his peers saw him and how he engaged with his mentors, which I always find fascinating. With the end of this book, I’m hungry for more historical and biographical texts of this calibre, and will probably need to pick up Gleick’s earlier work: Chaos.

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