James Gleick Criticism - Essay

James A. Glazier and Gemunu H. Gunaratne (review date February 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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....

(The entire section is 1099 words.)

Pat Coyne (review date 27 May 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1026 words.)

Brian Pippard (review date 22–28 July 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1458 words.)

Peter Campbell (review date 4 August 1988)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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.


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John Franks (review date Winter 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 3808 words.)

Tony Osman (review date 6 May 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1010 words.)

John Franks (essay date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 816 words.)

Morris W. Hirsch (essay date Summer 1989)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1707 words.)

Gale H. Carrithers Jr. (review date Winter 1990)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1516 words.)

Marek Kohn (review date 30 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 676 words.)

Christopher Potter (review date 31 October 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 856 words.)

Freeman Dyson (review date November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 621 words.)

Thomas A. Bass (review date 1 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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,...

(The entire section is 1472 words.)

S. S. Schweber (review date 26 November 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1495 words.)

Alan Lightman (review date 17 December 1992)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 4542 words.)

Nicholas Wade (review date 7 January 1993)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1830 words.)

Tom Regan (review date 26 August 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 588 words.)

James Gleick with Douglas Starr (interview date 30 August 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 2019 words.)

Todd Gitlin (review date 12 September 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1418 words.)

Benjamin Kline Hunnicutt (review date 19 September 1999)

(Contemporary Literary Criticism)

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...

(The entire section is 1072 words.)