Physics Book Review: Genius by James Gleick

Genius.jpg
Cover of the biography Genius by James Gleick.

Though Albert Einstein is often treated as the quintessential genius, there is a sense in which his genius is explicable. Einstein's ability was to see something fully, to grasp its fundamental essence, and to truly understand it. When someone explains the key insights that Einstein is credited with discovering, the line of reasoning typically becomes clear. The clues are all around and, like a detective in a good novel, Einstein's genius lay in being able to see the connections and explain them in a way that brings the whole mystery into clear resolution.

There is another type of a genius, though, who has insights and inspirations that, even in hindsight, it is difficult or impossible to fully grasp where the insights and inspirations came from. They have a seemingly-miraculous ability to jump to correct solutions through instinctive moves that have little clear justification, but ultimately resolve themselves into a correct resolution to problems. Even the genius himself finds it impossible to fully comprehend, or entirely explain, how he has gotten where he is, though he understands the solution entirely, and may even find it hard to imagine why others don't grasp these same instinctive jumps as intuitively as he does.

The twentieth century theoretical physicist Richard P. Feynman was a genius of this second sort, or so argues James Gleick in this biography, . From his youth in Far Rockaway to his work on the Manhattan Project to his innovations in quantum physics, Feynman's ability to focus on difficult problems with a laser-like focus until he was able to make sense of them is, unlike Einstein's more homespun genius, largely incomprehensible in its inner workings.

But it sure is fun to watch.

Feynman was, throughout his life, a controversial figure. On principle, he often chose to avoid anything that might be perceived as conventional. Aside from his first love, with a childhood sweetheart who died of tuberculosis while he was working in Los Alamos on the creation of the atomic bomb, one of Feynman's less endearing traits was his treatment of women throughout his life, and the author does not shy away from addressing these stories.

Aside from that, however, there are few details about Feynman's personal or family life as an adult. His relationships are a backdrop of this narrative of his life, rather than the focus.

A series of stories arose about him even while he was at Los Alamos, as he developed an affinity as a safe cracker at the world's most secure scientific research facility. Throughout his life, he cultivated these sorts of stories, in particular through two autobiographical collections written in the years before his death: and What Do You Care What Other People Think?   

Whatever positive and negative things can be said about his personality, as a scientist he is unquestioningly one of the most brilliant thinkers of the twentieth century. He arrived at key insights into chain reactions during nuclear fission while working on the Manhattan Project, and then followed that up by unraveling technical processes for working with quantum physics in the area of physics that became known as quantum electrodynamics, or QED. This laid the groundwork for the modern understanding of quantum physics through the latter half of the twentieth century, including the developments in particle physics that led to the quantum chromodynamics and the Standard Model of quantum physics.

In addition, Feynman is often credited with laying the groundwork for thinking about areas that are only now really coming into their own, including suggesting research in both nanotechnology and quantum computers.

Conclusion

If you are looking for a broad, general look at Feynman's life, this is probably one of the most definitive accounts that are out there. Feynman's own autobiographies are more about building an image of himself than presenting general accounts of his life, and other accounts have tended to focus more exclusively on Feynman's science. (Here I am particularly thinking of Lawrence Krauss' Quantum Man.) If you're looking to get a good, comprehensive look at how the different parts of Feynman's life all fit together, and how he fit into the broader swath of twentieth century theoretical physics, then I suggest Genius as the best place to begin.

Details About the Book

This review is based on an audiobook edition, obtained through Audible.com. It has a read time of 20 hours and 5 minutes.

The book was originally published in 1992. The 1993 paperback edition of this book is 531 pages in length.

About the Author

James Gleick is an american writer and historian of science, with a degree from Harvard University. Gleick went on to become a staff writer for The New York Times and has since written extensively, largely focusing on the history and social implications of science. His first book was the 1987 Chaos: Making a New Science.

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Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. "Physics Book Review: Genius by James Gleick." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2016, thoughtco.com/physics-book-review-genius-james-gleick-2699382. Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. (2016, September 1). Physics Book Review: Genius by James Gleick. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/physics-book-review-genius-james-gleick-2699382 Jones, Andrew Zimmerman. "Physics Book Review: Genius by James Gleick." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/physics-book-review-genius-james-gleick-2699382 (accessed November 24, 2017).