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The life and times of a " half buffoon , half genius "
on 6 July 1998
James Gleick's life of Feynman comes highly recommended to anyone concerned with the scholarship of safe-cracking , impromptu Brazilian samba ensembles and the fineries of quantum electrodynamics . Space shuttle design and the Manhattan Project are also included , so that no critic can claim in any seriousness that Feynman lacked balanced life-experience. This book is highly and competently researched ( 70-odd pages devoted to notes , acknowledgements and bibliography ) but it is no mere archive - there is a sense of presence in Gleick's narrative which , at times , borders on the voyeuristic (see , for example , the chapters detailing the correspondence between Feynman and his first wife Arline while he , shrouded in systematic censorship and effectively isolated , worked on the Bomb and she died slowly of consumption.) His account of Feynman's physics is similarly uncanny, making esoteric and , dare I say it , deep , theoretical material accessible to non-specialists . Perhaps this success in transmitting his ideas in a second-hand fashion is due to some aspect of the nature of Feynman's thinking - he was what might be called a ' freehand ' theoretician , prepared to step outside the realm of the accepted processes in order to see new ways of achieving old results , and thus to reconfigure the family-tree of physics and open new branches of inquiry . His closest rival for much of his career , Julian Schwinger , also comes across as his antithesis - Gleick , in any case , would have us believe in two incompatible minds , in Feynman the intuitive doodler and Schwinger the rigorous draftsman , both working to slice the same pie but with different mental utensils , one with a machete and the other with a laser . This was an academic showdown of the first order and one of the more compelling themes in the book . Compiling the life of an arch-scientist with a penchant for percussion and amateur safe-cracking is no mean feat . Feynman was enigmatic as an individual , to say the least , but this book goes! a lot of the way to answering , in the positive , the old freshman question " IS FEYNMAN HUMAN ? "