James Gleick

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(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1,432 words.)