Genius (Magill's Literary Annual 1991-2005)
Richard Feynman was a well-known and highly esteemed theoretical physicist, a member of a new group of theoreticians who came to the forefront in the years following World War II. Their backgrounds differed from those of previous generations of theoretical physicists in many ways, among which were their American nationality, their Jewish ancestry, and their early childhood experience in New York City. This group included J. Robert Oppenheimer, Julian Schwinger, Murray Gell-Mann, Sheldon Glashow, and Steven Weinberg. All of them, except Oppenheimer, became recipients of the Nobel Prize in Physics.
Feynman publicly revealed in anecdotal fashion many details of his personality and activities, in and out of physics, in two autobiographical books, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character (1985) and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?”: Further Adventures of a Curious Character (1988). Both of these books were transcribed by Ralph Leighton, a personal friend and associate, from tape recordings made by Feynman. The second of these books was published after Feynman’s death from cancer on February 15, 1988.
The use of the word “curious” in the subtitles of these books can be understood in two senses: as the description of Feynman’s own curiosity and as the way that he was perceived by others, as being different or unusual. When British physicist Freeman Dyson first became acquainted with Feynman, he wrote home to his parents that Feynman was “half genius, half buffoon.”
Despite the jocular tone of the titles of these books and the many amusing stories they include, they revealed that Feynman could speak seriously. Fellow physicist Philip Morrison wrote in a review of the first, “Generally Mr. Feynman is not joking; it is we, the setters of ritual performance, of hypocritical standards, pretenders to care and understanding, who are joking instead. This is the book of a powerful mind honest beyond everything else, a specialist in spade-naming.” Many readers will enjoy and profit from reading the above books before the biography reviewed in this article.
James Gleick’s biographical study, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, is an ambitious, well-researched, and skillfully written treatment of Feynman’s life from his boyhood in Far Rockaway (a part of New York City remote from Manhattan) in the years between the two world wars, to his formal training in physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and Princeton University, to his work on the atomic bomb at the Los Alamos Laboratory during World War II and his postwar academic professional experiences at Cornell University and at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech).
Gleick says that he never met Feynman. It is clear, however, that before undertaking the writing of this book, he researched all available relevant sources of information. These included all of Feynman’s own publications (popular, technical, and educational), archival materials located at many institutions, oral history interviews with Feynman and others previously conducted by historians of science, and his own interviews with Feynman’s colleagues who were still accessible. In addition, after Feynman’s death, Gleick was granted access to personal papers in the hands of Feynman’s widow, papers which have proved singularly illuminating.
The extent of the resources tapped by Gleick is evident from the notes he has provided to his writing, page by page. In these, he scrupulously lists the source or the basis for each statement he makes, thereby assuring the reader of the reliability of his narrative. He also has appended “A Feynman Bibliography” as well as a bibliography of relevant material by other authors. The book is indexed well and includes numerous photographs of Feynman, ranging from showing him with his first bicycle to his final public appearance in 1986, before the presidential commission to investigate the accident of the space shuttle Challenger that took seven...
(The entire section is 1671 words.)
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Genius (Magill Book Reviews)
GENIUS: THE LIFE AND SCIENCE OF RICHARD FEYNMAN is the biography of one of the twentieth century’s most original thinkers. Feynman was known by the public for his work on the CHALLENGER investigation and through two best-selling collections of personal anecdotes; his real celebrity, however, lay within the scientific community. His fellow scientists, especially the physicists, saw him as possessing an uncanny insight into the workings of nature. Some admirers believed that Feynman’s intuitive powers were rivaled in our century only by Albert Einstein.
Gleick continually illustrates how Feynman brought this penetrating intuition to bear on some of physics’ most essential questions. His work in quantum electrodynamics earned him a Nobel Prize, an award which he could just as easily have won for his research into superfluidity or the weak interactions in radioactive decay. An insatiable curiosity and a belief in the intelligibility of nature fueled Feynman’s passionate search for truth, which, he held, science could best ascertain.
Feynman’s fascinating life was not all science, however. Scientists and nonscientists alike found him intriguing for varying reasons. Gleick intersperses anecdotes throughout to show Feynman’s playfulness, charm, and roguishness, traits illustrative of his deviation from the stereotype of the dry, one-dimensional man of science.
Ultimately, however, the biography focuses on the science; as Gleick observes, that is how Feynman would have wanted it. History certainly will judge him as one of the pivotal figures in our century’s quest to better understand nature’s most fundamental forces. There can be no doubting that Feynman was indeed a genius.
Sources for Further Study
Fortune. CXXVI, November 30, 1992, p. 149.
Library Journal. CXVII, October 1, 1992, p. 96.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. November 1, 1992, p. 1.
New Statesman and Society. V, October 30, 1992, p. 39.
The New York Times Book Review. XCVII, October 11, 1992, p. 3.
Newsweek. CXX, October 19, 1992, p. 70.
Publishers Weekly. CCXXXIX, November 2, 1992, p. 43.
Science News. CXLII, October 17, 1992, p. 258.
The Wall Street Journal. November 3, 1992, p. A14.
The Washington Post Book World. XXII, October 11, 1992, p. 1.