James Gleick Critical Essays

Introduction

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.