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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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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. However, starting about 10 years ago, and largely due to the efforts of mathematicians and theoretical physicists, these disparate groups began to recognize that they were all pursuing fundamentally similar problems describable in terms of the same set of unifying concepts. James Gleick's fascinating book [Chaos] is a history of the development of these ideas, now known generically as chaos.
Gleick makes a convincing case that the theory of chaos has begun a revolution in our understanding of nature comparable to that engendered by quantum mechanics, with “sensitive dependence on initial conditions” playing the role of the uncertainty principle. However, though the initial inspiration for the two movements came at...
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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 Nostradamus, be quantified, codified and find themselves in the textbooks?
Don't rule it out. James Gleick's book [Chaos] is an object lesson in how, beneath the best explored of surfaces, there can lurk not the occult but—much worse, as far as science is concerned—the unpredictable. Moreover we are not talking of some obscure branch of algebra. Gleick's claims for the mathematics of chaos resemble those of Douglas Adams for the number 42. “Life, the Universe and Everything” is there as Gleick asserts that chaos sheds light on stock markets, heart attacks, earthquakes, the rise and fall of animal populations, the mechanics of star clusters and much, much more.
From where does chaos spring? In a...
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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 voluminous—there is already a new journal dedicated to its study—and very heavy reading it makes, even when not presented in the impenetrable shorthand of pure mathematics.
To appreciate what is involved, consider a tennis-player repeatedly bouncing a ball into the air off his racket. Of course he times his movements to keep the ball in play, but let us replace him by a simple automaton that jiggles the racket up and down perfectly regularly; will the ball lock into synchronization with the racket so that it bounces to the same height every time? Yes, if the amplitude of the racket's oscillation is about right. But let the amplitude be increased steadily, and at a certain moment the even spacing of the bounces will give way...
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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.
‘Chaos’, as it is used in this context, is confusing. It is not, for instance, a synonym for ‘random’. Weather is chaotic: you never know exactly when the next cyclone will come across the Atlantic—but it is not random. The behaviour of warm damp air, on any scale from a cupful to a cyclone, follows the general laws of expansion, contraction and movement which apply in more predictable systems. In terms of averages and general patterns, it is stable and describable. Science up to now has looked to deal with phenomena which settle to regular patterns. It has assumed that in chaotic systems like the weather the problem was a scarcity of data, a confusion of superimposed patterns and rhythms, all interacting with each other. If...
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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 difference equation) and what it does. The theme of the book is that even rather simple non-linear models can, and typically do, exhibit extremely sensitive dependence on initial conditions. What this means is that two solutions of a non-linear ordinary differential equation can start with very close initial conditions but then diverge rapidly from one another while remaining in a bounded region. The effect is that after a moderate amount of time the position of a solution can appear to be a random function of the initial condition. This seems quite paradoxical because the differential equation certainly generates a deterministic system.
Only recently have scientists begun to realize the extent to which simple dynamical...
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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 through the real world around us, show why conventional science fails so badly to predict ‘real’ events, and show how their new science makes the complexities of reality comprehensible.
Chaos theory shows why, for example, we cannot hope for accurate long-range weather forecasts. It shows how the relatively simple message that is all that our genes can carry can prescribe the barely imaginable complexity of the air passages in our lungs or the branching of our blood vessels. And the chaos theorists show that there is order, and predictability, in events whose courses seem completely baffling—Stock Exchange crashes and disease epidemics, to take two examples where we have no working theory at the moment.
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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 in doing mathematics?
It is wrong to try, as James Gleick does in these pages, to make a dichotomy between discovery and proof in mathematics. Usually the discovery is the proof, or at least it is inextricably tied to it. Very rarely is a proof a historical afterthought. Almost always it is a proof, or the process of finding it, that creates new mathematical knowledge. A proof is not some kind of super spelling checker that merely validates mathematical facts. Most mathematicians would consider proofs to be the central content of mathematical knowledge. Who would be satisfied if God were to announce that the Riemann Hypothesis is true, but deny us the proof?
Let me paraphrase an old joke about money. In...
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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 expounding many fascinating themes of current research.
But to my mind the book has one great defect: It doesn't do justice to the rigorous mathematics underlying a great deal of the research in nonlinear dynamical systems. In fact a nonmathematician or even a mathematician unfamiliar with the material would find it hard to tell that rigorous mathematical proof—as contrasted with conjecture, heuristic, experiment, and computer simulations—played a vital part in this research.
This book severely underrates the importance of rigorous mathematics and its influence on the understanding of chaotic dynamics. It is not easy to learn from it that many important chaotic systems, including the earliest and the...
(The entire section is 1707 words.)
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 touch, to objects at human scale.” Gleick, since 1978 an editor and reporter at the New York Times, chronicles the story.
The first chapter features three papers by Edward N. Lorenz published in 1963–64. It was he who showed mathematically and graphically that long-range weather prediction is inherently impossible (rather than merely difficult), and who later gave us in 1979 “the butterfly effect,” as in “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly's Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?” Yes; at least it may; though it might not.
The following ten chapters are in several ways a cautionary tale—of scholarly investigators in many lines of research historically and institutionally...
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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 tailor-made for the maverick physicist; demotic, mandarin and abrupt.
In the absence of any neat association with a device or a theory, Feynman gathered renown simply as a genius. His way of thinking and speaking, scornful of protocol, won him an entranced following. But despite the celebrated bongo-playing and the long grey locks of his later years, he was a man neither of the counterculture nor of the people. He voted for Eisenhower in the 1950s and steered clear of political issues in subsequent decades. Although magnificently charismatic, he offered the lay public no glib visions, scientific or mystical.
Feynman did, however, seduce it with a mythology of himself. No scientist ever embraced anecdote so...
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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 century and, excepting Einstein, certainly a match for the rich trove of physicists of the first half: Heisenberg, Dirac, Pauli, Bohr et al. But what immediately separates the genius of Feynman from that of his peers is his obvious lack of cultural roundedness. He managed to get into Princeton with a perfect result in physics and the lowest score ever in history and English. He was also, as many intelligent and sensitive children are, desperately unsporty—which he compensated for by assuming an unpleasantly exaggerated machismo. In the late 1960s, when Feynman was in his early thirties, he was the subject of a protest march, one placard suggesting his middle initial P stood for Pig. Feynman was certainly promiscuous and may well have...
(The entire section is 856 words.)
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 reliable history of the atomic bomb, and Rhodes had supplied it.
My initial reaction to James Gleick's new book [Genius] was the same. After three books by Ralph Leighton and all the other published reminiscences of Feynman's life and work, who needs another book about Feynman? And again, after reading the book, I changed my mind. Like Rhodes, Gleick has made an extraordinarily thorough investigation of primary sources. He has interviewed a multitude of people who were involved with Feynman at every period of his life from beginning to end, including family, childhood friends, colleagues, students, government officials and medical doctors. He has had access to early personal notes and correspondence that amplify and...
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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, but perhaps for the wrong reasons, as James Gleick asserts in his new biography of the scientist. Before his death of cancer in 1988, Feynman's fame had become the mask of a carefully cultivated persona, argues Gleick, a persona that actually obscured the man's real accomplishments.
It is Gleick's aspiration to use Feynman's life as a window into the history of modern physics, our “modern secular religion,” as Gleick calls it. He has performed a monumental task of sifting through Feynman's papers and interviewing many of the important figures in his life. The book [Genius] is ambitious and thorough, but Gleick has a tough assignment when he follows Feynman in retelling stories that the scientist himself had...
(The entire section is 1472 words.)
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 ties of the discipline to the tradition of natural philosophy. The cult idols are the reification of the aspirations and myths of the community and the embodiments of its cherished values. (And just as what is not said can be as revealing as what is, those left out of the hall of fame disclose much about the community.)
Einstein and Bohr, and to a lesser degree Planck and Rutherford, are the heroes from the period before the Second World War. They have come to stand for the advances ushered in by relativity and quantum mechanics. Dirac embodies the ‘genius’ of the quantum-mechanical revolution and is the prophet who pointed the way in the synthesis of relativity and quantum mechanics. And Landau and Feynman have become...
(The entire section is 1495 words.)
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 let out a loud sigh.” At twenty-three, he amazed a Princeton colleague when he worked out at the blackboard a proof of an important proposition of physics that had been only loosely conjectured eight years earlier by the Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac. In 1960, in his early forties, restless and unable to find a physics problem worth working on, Feynman taught himself enough biology to make an original discovery of how mutations work in genes.
Feynman rarely read the scientific literature. When he did, he would read only far enough into an article to see what the problem was, fold up the journal, and then derive the results on his own. When a colleague, after perhaps months of calculations, walked into Feynman's office...
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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 Challenger space shuttle forced the cause of the disaster into the open.
Genius is the attempt by a skilled and elegant science writer, James Gleick, to present the facts of Feynman's life and achievements. Unfortunately, the latter are quite elusive, which is surprising given the mystique that has long surrounded Feynman. His fellow physicists held him in an awe that seems to have transcended his actual achievements, at least to judge from the evidence of this book. That evidence is not easy to weigh, however, because Genius is short on scientific explanation and technical detail.
Feynman burst onto the high-energy physics scene as an enfant terrible, a role he continued to play at all...
(The entire section is 1830 words.)
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 something wrong—that by obeying the law, you're an oddball, that you're not making the best use of your time, even if it means endangering your life in a city where drivers slow for a pedestrian about as often as the Red Sox win the World Series.
In a way, reading James Gleick's Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything is like waiting for “Walk” while everyone else rushes across the street. Perhaps you do feel like a bit of an oddball, and maybe you could do something more “useful.” Yet, there is something vaguely comforting in the sensation of stepping outside the stream of time that everyone else swims in. And pausing.
Because Faster is a book that demands your attention....
(The entire section is 588 words.)
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 relaxed. He worries that readers will consign him to a single category—science—while he sees his own work as much broader than that. “Granted, I'm more interested in technology than most people, and less interested in politics than most. But I don't like to think about categories. I really see myself as a general nonfiction writer.”
Maybe so. But few people have made as much of a mark in general interest science books in such a short time. Gleick was a relative newcomer to the field in 1987, when Viking published Chaos, a narrative about the scientists developing new theories to explain disorder in the universe, which became an instant hit. His next book, Genius, a biography of the eclectic physicist Richard...
(The entire section is 2019 words.)
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 Ticketmaster again—or, much better, setting your Power-Dialer to try up to 25 times a minute—because, in pursuit of the latest hot ticket, which just went on sale and is already tying up tens of thousands of long-distance lines, you keep getting a busy signal. Or you may be reading online, skimming from high-lighted keyword to subhead, stopping at bulleted lists, one mouse click away from a classified ad, or a steaming Pamela Anderson Lee video, or an incoming instant message via AOL, or an offshore Internet bet, or a quick toss on the Singapore stock exchange, or the chance to order the book under review or an inbox of e-mails, each clamoring for reply (you will be thought rude if you take longer than overnight) while ads flash and...
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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 breathless. And the race gets longer. We become long-distance runners, plunging headlong at a sprinter's pace.
What happened? Where are we going, and why so fast?
In Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything, James Gleick gives us a delightful yet troubling book that describes the seemingly irresistible quickening of modern life. A virtuoso of the popular-science genre, Gleick has been a frequent contributor to the New York Times and has written two National Book Award finalists—Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman and Chaos: Making a New Science.
Gleick's book imitates what he describes: It is supercharged, fast-paced, scattered, restless. Topics...
(The entire section is 1072 words.)
Balazs, Nandor. Review of Chaos, by James Gleick. Quarterly Review of Biology 64, No. 1 (March 1989): 112–13.
In this mixed review of Chaos, Balazs dismisses the exaggerated importance of chaos theory and notes problems of misrepresentation and omission in Gleick's book.
Burns, David. “Computer ‘Chaos’ Bringing Order to the Mysteries of Science.” Chicago Tribune Books (22 November 1987): 10.
Burns offers a positive assessment of Chaos.
Ehrenreich, Barbara. “Think Quick.” New York Times Book Review (12 September 1999): 9.
Ehrenreich offers a positive assessment of Faster, but takes issue with the book’s frenetic pacing.
Farmelo, Graham. “On Speed.” New Scientist (30 October 1999): 52.
Framelo offers a mixed assessment of Faster.
Johnson, Dan. “Living Faster and Faster.” Futurist 34, No. 2 (March–April 2000): 18.
Johnson discusses Faster and the effect of technology on the speed and quality of modern life.
Jones, Malcolm, Jr. “Spin Doctor.” Newsweek (19 October 1992): 70.
In this review of Genius, Jones states that, while the biography has “some fine moments,” the book never...
(The entire section is 509 words.)