(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

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.)