Genius

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1671

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,...

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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 lives.

The details of Feynman’s life, outside his achievements in physics, make an interesting story in themselves. Furthermore, Gleick has been careful to describe the atmosphere in which the various stages of that life progressed; for example, Feynman’s family background, his life as an undergraduate at MIT living in a fraternity house, the wartime secrecy in force at Los Alamos, and a sabbatical year spent in Brazil, learning to play bongo drums among other activities social and scientific. In addition, there are details of his romantic involvements, starting with the sad case of his greatly beloved first wife, Arline, who died of tuberculosis in an Albuquerque sanatorium while her husband was working at Los Alamos, less than five years after their marriage. Many years later, after several temporary relationships, he married his third wife, Gweneth, who became the mother of his children and who survived him.

When dealing with Feynman’s scientific achievements, Gleick makes an earnest and largely successful attempt to give the historical context of the twentieth century physics into which Feynman plunged after 1945. It was a time when new ideas and fresh minds were needed to solve the dilemmas of electromagnetic field theory that grew out of the quantum mechanics that was first introduced in the mid-1920’s. He also has provided vignettes about many of the well-known physicists with whom Feynman interacted, such as John Wheeler at Princeton University, Hans Bethe at Los Alamos and at Cornell University, and Murray Gell-Mann at Caltech.

Feynman had impressed the older physicists with whom he came in contact at MIT, Princeton, and Los Alamos as a bright and talented newcomer from whom much could be expected. One of his first outstanding achievements was the invention of his “path integrals” to cope with the difficulties of quantum electrodynamics. For this he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 with Julian Schwinger and the Japanese theoretician Shin’ichir Tomonaga, both of whom had approached their task with rigorous mathematical techniques. Feynman’s style was mathematically sound but involved visualization in diagrams that were especially welcomed by students and have since become widely used by physicists at all levels. Incidentally, another theoretical physicist, Freeman Dyson, a longtime friend and associate of Feynman, showed that the Schwinger/Tomonaga and Feynman approaches were equivalent to each other.

Feynman’s rivalry with Schwinger became evident in the late 1940’s, starting with a series of conferences on contemporary theoretical physics that were organized to bring together, by invitation only, older established physicists and the young newcomers to the field. Gleick describes a particularly interesting episode involving the conversion of Oppenheimer from the Schwinger approach to that of Feynman and Dyson.

In describing Feynman’s scientific work, Gleick has avoided virtually all mathematical language, carefully trying to give the reader the conceptual content and the innovative style employed by Feynman. These sections, interspersed with the general narrative and easily recognizable by readers, will be read with varying degrees of satisfaction depending on the individual reader’s previous acquaintance with the vocabulary of modern physics (a topic that has received considerable attention by popular authors) and present level of mathematical sophistication.

Feynman did not often collaborate with others. In fact, he rarely read the usual scientific literature, and he advised his students not to do so. He preferred to read enough to comprehend the problem at hand and then work out the details of the solution in his own terms. He wanted his students to develop their own original methods of attacking a problem area. This approach often proved troublesome for those with meager originality. At one time, Feynman published a group of papers with his Caltech colleague, Murray Gell-Mann, when they were wrestling with elementary particle theory. It was not a true collaboration, however, as they thought so differently about the task at hand.

Feynman’s characteristic curiosity, in at least one instance, led him away from the focus of his colleagues in theoretical physics. He tackled the problem of the strange behavior of liquid helium and achieved, single-handedly, a significant breakthrough in that area. His curiosity also reached beyond physics to encompass other areas, such as languages, sketching, drum playing, and biological research. Whatever he did, he did with natural talent and complete dedication, achieving respectable results.

Gleick chose Genius as the principal title for this biography in clear homage to Feynman’s personality and achievements. About three-quarters of the way through his book, Gleick essays a somewhat digressive but thought-provoking dissertation on the nature of recognized geniuses of the past in science and other disciplines. He quotes mathematician Mark Kac’s often-cited distinction between “ordinary ge- - niuses” and “magicians.” The former are like their coworkers but much better at some things. The latter are basically different from their colleagues and cannot really be understood. For Kac, Feynman exemplified the magician type. Readers must decide for themselves to what extent they agree with Gleick’s analysis. In Feynman’s case, genius was characterized most strikingly by originality and intuition, coupled with great intellectual capacity and self-confidence.

Feynman received many honors during his lifetime, some of which necessitated his traveling abroad to participate in award ceremonies and deliver lectures. Most of his life, energy, and interests, however, were focused on America. He was regarded, especially by European colleagues, as being quintessentially American. He struck Freeman Dyson as “uproariously American—unbuttoned and burning with physical energy.” His public service included advising the state of California on matters of curriculum in mathematics and science and the federal government in determining the cause of the Challenger disaster. His simple demonstration, during hearings in Washington, of the effect of ice water temperature on the brittleness of the O-rings that failed on the Challenger will long be remembered as a prime example of the direct simplicity with which Feynman approached nature in various contexts.

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.

Genius

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 326

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.

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