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James Gleick

James Gleick Essay - Critical Essays

Gleick, James


James Gleick 1954-

(Full name James W. Gleick) American nonfiction writer, biographer, and journalist.

The following entry presents an overview of Gleick's career through 1999.

A best-selling science and technology author, Gleick has won recognition for his ability to make complex scientific concepts accessible to the general public. In an era of rapid technological advancement, Gleick is known for his extensive research and thorough explanation of the theoretical implications and real societal impact of cutting-edge science. Gleick's use of primary sources as well as previously published documents allows him to offer new information and insights on emerging scientific advances. His several books vary in their content and focus: Chaos: Making a New Science (1987) chronicles the development of chaos theory—or systems theory—a theoretical model used to examine extremely complex systems; Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1993) is a biography of Nobel-prize winning physicist Richard Feynman; and Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (1999) illustrates ways in which technological conveniences have dramatically accelerated the pace of modern life. Gleick's work is credited with helping spark widespread interest in contemporary scientific research among both scientific and lay communities.

Biographical Information

Gleick was born in New York City in 1954 to parents Donen and Beth Gleick. Though an exceptional math student in high school, Gleick went on to major in English and linguistics at Harvard University. He received his B.A. in 1976, then moved to Minneapolis where he founded an alternative weekly newspaper, Metropolis, and worked as its managing editor. He married Cynthia Crossen in 1979, and the couple later adopted a son, Harry. In 1986, Gleick was hired as a copy editor for the New York Times. After writing magazine profiles of linguist and mathematician Douglas Hofstader and mathematicians Mitchell Feigenbaum and Benoit Mandelbrot, Gleick became a science and technology reporter for the paper. The 1987 publication of his first nonfiction book, Chaos, brought nominations for both the National Book Award and Pulitzer Prize. Gleick left the New York Times in 1988, although he continued to contribute columns and articles to the paper. During the 1989 to 1990 academic year, he taught at Princeton University as the McGraw Distinguished Lecturer. In 1993, Gleick collaborated with computer programmer Uday Ivatury to design and found The Pipeline Network, a pioneering Internet service that featured an early version of an Internet browser. His 1993 biography of physicist Richard Feynman, Genius, once again made Gleick a finalist for the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize. In December 1997, Gleick, an experienced pilot, crash-landed his plane while flying with his eight-year-old son. His son was killed in the crash and Gleick suffered serious injuries that resulted in the loss of one leg and a long physical rehabilitation. During his recovery, he began writing Faster, based on his “Fast Forward” newspaper columns in the New York Times. In an interview for Publishers Weekly, Gleick named as his literary role models J. Anthony Lucas, Tom Wolfe, and Gay Talese, whom he admires for their realistic observations and honesty.

Major Works

Gleick's nonfiction approaches scientific concepts and the impact of technology in an easily understood and engaging manner, incorporating anecdotes, quotes, biographical sketches, statistics, insights, and observations to animate complex and, for the layman, often foreboding ideas. Mixing the styles of fiction and journalism, Gleick is known for his fast-paced, highly readable prose and detailed information gathering. His work is supported by exhaustive original research, often derived from previously unpublished sources such as interviews and correspondence. The publication of Chaos was noted for its ability to bring together the research of various mathematicians, physicists, and biologists who had been independently contributing to the relatively new scientific paradigm of systems theory. As a result, Gleick introduced the theory to the general public and informed the scientific community of new research developments in the field. As a history of scientific attempts to find order in complex systems, Chaos reveals how recent multidisciplinary research suggests that seemingly random changes in the universe follow set patterns. Although the theory was first discussed in the early 1960s, Gleick explains how advanced technology in the 1980s—particularly the advent of computer-generated graphics—facilitated chaos research and increased the theory's acceptance. Gleick notes how the ability to understand the influence of such seemingly random conditions could result in more accurate weather forecasts and greater understanding of natural phenomena. Gleick also uses Chaos to discuss the process by which scientific theories are validated in the scientific community. His focus on the creative quality of science draws upon the insights of scientist and author Thomas Kuhn, who suggested that scientific revolutions are largely the result of effective claims-making, a process not wholly rational.

In Genius, Gleick presents a portrait of renowned physicist Richard Feynman, one of the twentieth century's most brilliant minds, known for his idiosyncratic personality. Although Feynman won the Nobel Prize in 1965 for proposing the theory of quantum electrodynamics, he was not widely known outside the scientific community. Feynman gained more widespread notoriety later in his life as a member of the committee that investigated the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster. In an amazingly simple demonstration, Feynman dunked one of the shuttle's seal rings in ice water, demonstrating that if subjected to intense cold, the rings would crack, thus resulting in a catastrophic failure. Feynman, who died in 1988, was an author, California Institute of Technology professor, and part of the Manhattan Project that developed the atomic bomb during World War II. Turning to primary sources to glean new information and insights, Gleick gained access to Feynman's personal notes and correspondence, taped interviews, lecture videos, CIA and FBI documents, and was also able to interview individuals who had known and worked with Feynman. Gleick's biography is credited with bringing to light the true extent of Feynman's scientific accomplishments and presenting a sensitive portrait of the scientist as an individual within the context of the post World War II era. In addition, Gleick's study of Feynman raises questions about the nature of genius and includes sketches of other physicists at work during the postwar era. Gleick's third major work, Faster, lists hundreds of facts that demonstrate how technological innovation has accelerated the pace of modern life to the point where humans become impatient as they continually attempt to do more. Although loaded with data, including on-location interviews with individuals in high-pressure occupations, this work takes a more philosophical and psychological approach to technology's impact on society. Gleick contends that, despite the anxiety and exhaustion that results from a state of constant technological immersion, people actually enjoy constant activity and participation in multiple tasks simultaneously.

Critical Reception

Gleick is highly regarded for his prose, the accuracy and detail of his research, and his ability to set new scientific developments within the context of contemporary life and ordinary understanding. His books have appealed to a wide-ranging audience. Some scientists have objected to what they view as an oversimplification of science and mathematics in his work. Chaos was praised for synthesizing current trends in the emerging science of systems theory and for addressing both the scientific and philosophical aspects of the theory. In addition, his portraits of scientists as individuals, achieved through details and vignettes, have earned respect, even where the extent of a particular individual's achievements is debated. Gleick's ability to humanize scientific endeavors is also appreciated for conveying the genuine excitement of scientific discovery, a purely emotional motivation that is often overlooked by nonscientists. Some reviewers have criticized Chaos for failing to mention the groundbreaking research of non-American scientists, especially Europeans. Genius is considered an exemplary scientific biography, highly regarded for its thoroughness, insights, and memorable detail. While critics have praised Gleick's account of Feynman's triumphs and setbacks, some have faulted Gleick for maintaining too much distance from his subject in the interest of objectivity, and, for overstating minor accomplishments. Faster attracted a large audience and critical approval as a fascinating, provocative account of an alienated society in constant motion. “Gleick demonstrates an uncommon talent for describing the ordinary in extraordinary terms,” according to reviewer Rob Pegoraro. However, some critics have faulted the work as superficial, noting that Gleick lists an abundance of diagnostic examples without providing adequate elaboration or substantiation of his assertions. The book's short chapters quickly shift focus, perhaps intentionally in light of the theme, but to the dissatisfaction of some reviewers who concluded that Gleick fails to answer difficult questions and ends without presenting a satisfactory solution for rescuing an accelerated society. Nevertheless, Gleick is viewed as a skilled researcher and persuasive writer who, through his informed writings, has facilitated an uncharacteristic level of public accessibility to complex scientific subjects and pressing matters of technological change.

Principal Works

Chaos: Making a New Science (non-fiction) 1987

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (biography) 1993

Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything (non-fiction) 1999

The Best American Science Writing 2000 [editor; with Jesse Cohen] (non-fiction) 2000


James A. Glazier and Gemunu H. Gunaratne (review date February 1988)

SOURCE: “The Fascinating Physics of Everyday Complexity, Beautifully Portrayed,” in Physics Today, Vol. 41, No. 2, February, 1988, pp. 79–80.

[In the following review, Glazier and Gunaratne offer a positive assessment of Chaos, which they praise as energetic and skillfully written.]

About 20 years ago, researchers in a variety of fields, ranging from economics and biology to mathematics and physics, began to question the assumption that complex behavior springs from random and essentially inexplicable causes. Often they were working on unfashionable or interdisciplinary topics and their results were studiously ignored by more mainstream researchers....

(The entire section is 1099 words.)

Pat Coyne (review date 27 May 1988)

SOURCE: “Whirling around in Whorls,” in New Statesman, May 27, 1988, pp. 31–32.

[In the following review of Chaos, Coyne finds Gleick's book adequate for lay readers, but notes shortcomings in Gleick's incomplete grasp of the topic and in his newspaper-style prose.]

Odd how the vocabulary of a newly credulous age seems to be invading even the best guarded of territories. Who would have thought that the words “catastrophe” and “chaos” could have become part of the common currency of that most self-consciously rational of disciplines, mathematics? Perhaps there is more to come? Could other current American predelictions, like the musings of...

(The entire section is 1026 words.)

Brian Pippard (review date 22–28 July 1988)

SOURCE: “Nowhere Twice,” in Times Literary Supplement, July 22–28, 1988, p. 800.

[In the following review, Pippard discusses chaos theory and offers a favorable assessment of Gleick's treatment of the subject in Chaos.]

Haydn's Creation opens with a Representation of Chaos which, while adhering to the rules of musical grammar, confounds at every turn the listener's expectations. Chaos is for Haydn no illogical riot but a paradoxical coexistence of logic and unpredictability, and it is in this sense that the word was imported into science in 1975 to describe what has since been recognized as a pervasive mode of behaviour. The technical literature is...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)

Peter Campbell (review date 4 August 1988)

SOURCE: “Thinking,” in London Review of Books, August 4, 1988, pp. 14, 16.

[In the following excerpt, Campbell offers a positive assessment of Chaos.]

. … James Gleick's Chaos tells an exhilarating tale. It starts a quarter of a century ago with work on weather forecasting by Edward Lorenz and finishes with an account of the penetration of ‘chaos’ research into sciences as different as epidemiology and astronomy. Science has traditionally turned a blind eye when a graph fluttered unmanageably and thus the future could not be plotted on a straight line or a smooth curve. It is such non-linear phenomena which chaos research investigates.


(The entire section is 1163 words.)

John Franks (review date Winter 1989)

SOURCE: A review of Chaos, in Mathematical Intelligencer, Vol. 11, No. 1, Winter, 1989, pp. 65–69.

[In the following unfavorable review of Chaos, Franks disparages the notion of a “chaos revolution” and objects to Gleick's misrepresentation of chaos theory, fractal geometry, and mathematical methodology.]

[Chaos] is a book about new ways in which mathematics is used to model phenomena in the real world. It is intended for a general audience. The author is James Gleick, formerly a science reporter for the New York Times. He does a good job explaining what constitutes a mathematical model (by which he means a differential equation or a...

(The entire section is 3808 words.)

Tony Osman (review date 6 May 1989)

SOURCE: “Patterns of Order in Disorder,” in Spectator, May 6, 1989, pp. 32–33.

[In the following review, Osman discusses the development of chaos theory and offers praise for Gleick's treatment of the subject in Chaos.]

We could well be in at the beginning of a new science, as important as those of Newton and Darwin. Like the science of those revolutionaries, the new science of chaos, marvellously described in James Gleick's book, [Chaos,] affects the way we see the world. Newton gave us the universe as a celestial machine: Darwin described a world in which the forms of life evolved by chance and survived by competition. The theorists of chaos guide us...

(The entire section is 1010 words.)

John Franks (essay date Summer 1989)

SOURCE: “Comments on the Responses to My Review of Chaos,” in Mathematical Intelligencer, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 12–13.

[In the following essay, Franks objects to Gleick's portrayal of mathematicians and the goals of mathematics in Chaos, and asserts that Gleick misses an opportunity to introduce the public to the rewarding creative aspects of mathematical research.]

The several responses to my review [of James Gleick's Chaos] raise some interesting questions. What does “doing mathematics” mean? Is it possible or desirable to give an honest explanation of its meaning to a general audience? How important is the role of theorem-proving...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

Morris W. Hirsch (essay date Summer 1989)

SOURCE: “Chaos, Rigor, and Hype,” in Mathematical Intelligencer, Vol. 11, No. 3, Summer, 1989, pp. 6–8.

[In the following essay, Hirsch objects to Gleick's misrepresentation of chaos theory in Chaos and his failure to focus on the contributions of mathematicians, particularly Stephen Smale, toward a scientific understanding of chaos.]

Gleick's book Chaos [reviewed by John Franks, Mathematical Intelligencer, vol. 11, no. 1, 1989] captures vividly and faithfully the personalities of the researchers, the atmosphere they worked in, and the spirit of the times (as far as I can tell—I don't know all the people in the book), as well as skillfully...

(The entire section is 1707 words.)

Gale H. Carrithers Jr. (review date Winter 1990)

SOURCE: A review of Chaos, in Southern Humanities Review, Vol. XXIV, No. 1, Winter, 1990, pp. 75–77.

[In the following review, Carrithers offers a positive assessment of Chaos.]

In the Prologue to this fascinating account, [Chaos,] Gleick attributes to Joseph Ford this characteristic claim of the “chaos movement”: “Relativity eliminated the Newtonian illusion of absolute space and time; quantum theory eliminated the Newtonian dream of a controllable measurement process; and chaos eliminates the Laplacian fantasy of deterministic predictability.” James Gleick adds that “of the three, the revolution in chaos applies to the universe we see and...

(The entire section is 1516 words.)

Marek Kohn (review date 30 October 1992)

SOURCE: “Wild at Heart,” in New Statesman & Society, October 30, 1992, p. 39.

[In the following review, Kohn praises Genius as “a formidable work of scientific biography,” but notes that Gleick's “guardedness” inhibits his ability to humanize the portrayal of Richard Feynman.]

After winning his Nobel Prize, Richard Feynman was dogged by the fact that he did not get it for something readily identifiable, like inventing the transistor or discovering penicillin. He was grateful to the reporter who suggested he tell inquirers, “Listen, buddy, if I could tell you in a minute what I did, it wouldn't be worth the Nobel Prize.” It was a line...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Christopher Potter (review date 31 October 1992)

SOURCE: “The Pig Who Abolished the Future,” in Spectator, October 31, 1992, pp. 36–37.

[In the following review, Potter offers a positive assessment of Genius.]

Despite the recent success of perhaps half a dozen popular science books which might be said to fulfil the expectations of C. P. Snow's projected ‘Third Culture,’ it is probable that most readers even of The Spectator will have only the haziest notion of who Richard Feynman (pronounced Fineman) was. And yet he was undoubtedly one of the greatest physicists (or is it mathematicians?—modern physics is so theoretical it is hard to distinguish between the two) of the second half of the 20th...

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Freeman Dyson (review date November 1992)

SOURCE: “Doubt as the Essence of Knowing: The Genius of Richard Feynman,” in Physics Today, Vol. 45, No. 11, November, 1992, p. 87.

[In the following review, Dyson offers a positive assessment of Genius.]

Six years ago Richard Rhodes published his historical study, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. Like most of my friends, I thought the last thing the world needed was another fat book about the atomic bomb. But it turned out that Rhodes had done his homework and gone back to primary sources; he discovered a wealth of new facts that the earlier books had missed. I was forced to reverse my initial judgment. After all, the world did need a comprehensive and...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Thomas A. Bass (review date 1 November 1992)

SOURCE: “Casanova of the Mind,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, November 1, 1992, pp. 1, 8.

[In the following review, Bass offers a positive assessment of Genius.]

Save for the beatified Einstein, few physicists have become famous. Robert Oppenheimer or Werner Heisenberg might be exceptions. But how many other physicists can we pick out of the serried ranks?

Maybe one other—Richard Feynman, who won the requisite Nobel Prize and taught for many years at Cal Tech before becoming famous, first as a popular author and then as a member of the panel examining the Challenger space shuttle disaster in 1986.

Feynman was famous,...

(The entire section is 1472 words.)

S. S. Schweber (review date 26 November 1992)

SOURCE: “From Thought to Expression,” in Nature, November 26, 1992, pp. 375–76.

[In the following review, Schweber offers a positive assessment of Genius.]

Scientific communities usually seek to convey the importance and the history of their discipline through the lives of their outstanding practitioners—individuals whose very creativity renders them unlikely to be the best representatives of their worlds. Physicists have principally chosen theorists as their heroic figures (Newton, Maxwell, Einstein, Planck, Bohr, Dirac, Pauli) or experimenters who left their mark in both experimentation and theory (J. J. Thomson, Rutherford, Fermi), thereby emphasizing the...

(The entire section is 1495 words.)

Alan Lightman (review date 17 December 1992)

SOURCE: “The One and Only,” in New York Review of Books, December 17, 1992, pp. 34–37.

[In the following positive review of Genius, Lightman provides an overview of physicist Richard Feynman's life and career.]

Richard Feynman was the Michael Jordan of physics. His intellectual leaps, seemingly weightless, defied explanation. One of his teammates on the high school math team in Far Rockaway, Long Island, recalls that Feynman “would get this unstudied insight while the problem was still being read out, and his opponents, before they could begin to compute, would see him ostentatiously write down a single number and draw a circle around it. Then he would...

(The entire section is 4542 words.)

Nicholas Wade (review date 7 January 1993)

SOURCE: “Mental Arithmetic,” in London Review of Books, January 7, 1993, p. 17.

[In the following review of Genius, Wade commends Gleick's portrayal of Richard Feynman's character and life, but concludes that the biography fails to illustrate the reasons why Feynman is considered to be a genius.]

Richard Feynman was one of the elite group of American and British physicists who developed atomic weapons with the Manhattan project in the Second World War. He flashed back into the public eye in 1965, when he won a share of the Nobel physics prize, and again two decades later when his formidable presence on the committee inquiring into the crash of the...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)

Tom Regan (review date 26 August 1999)

SOURCE: “Walk—Do Not Run—to Read this Book,” in Christian Science Monitor, August 26, 1999, p. 19.

[In the following review, Regan offers a positive assessment of Faster.]

If you want to understand how time has accelerated, you need only wait for a green light at any street corner in Boston. Because no one else will. Instead, other pedestrians will scan for the smallest sliver of a break in traffic and dodge across the street so they can get to work, lunch, a haircut, etc. about 30 seconds faster than if they had waited for the light to change.

Meanwhile, as you wait for the walk signal, you can't escape the nagging feeling that you're doing...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

James Gleick with Douglas Starr (interview date 30 August 1999)

SOURCE: “James Gleick: Speeding Toward the Millennium,” in Publishers Weekly, August 30, 1999, p. 44.

[In the following interview, Starr provides an overview of Gleick's career and discusses Gleick's comments on his life and work upon the publication of Faster.]

I really don't think of myself as a science writer, says James Gleick, one of the nation's preeminent practitioners in the field. Gleick, a former New York Times science reporter, columnist for the Times Sunday Magazine and author of two classic science books, is sitting on the deck of his house overlooking the Hudson River. The setting is pastoral, but Gleick seems more tentative than...

(The entire section is 2019 words.)

Todd Gitlin (review date 12 September 1999)

SOURCE: “Overload,” in Los Angeles Times Book Review, September 12, 1999, p. 6.

[In the following review of Faster, Gitlin concludes that Gleick's compilation of illustrative examples, although interesting, fails to provide substantive analysis of complex historical and societal issues.]

Reader, you may be reading these words while nibbling on your morning Pop-Tart, or sipping a cup of microwaved coffee, or looking up from the Sunday morning cartoons or tennis or “Meet the Press.” You may have learned to speed-read, thereby saving valuable seconds that you may spend dipping into a game of Doom or, on your portable phone, hitting the redial button to try...

(The entire section is 1418 words.)

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt (review date 19 September 1999)

SOURCE: “A Fast-Paced Look at the Whirl and Flux of Modern Life,” in Chicago Tribune Books, September 19, 1999, p. 1.

[In the following review of Faster, Hunnicutt takes issue with Gleick's fast-paced analysis of social change and his acceptance of the acceleration of contemporary life.]

So much to do! So little time!

Fragments of old hippie hymns ring in the ear: “Slow down, you move too fast, / You got to make the morning last”; “No time for a gentle rain. … No time left for you.”

Now there is precious little time left for anyone. All is speed and rush, whirl and flux. Our lives race ahead, the pace ever more...

(The entire section is 1072 words.)