17 of 17 people found the following review helpful
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 ? "
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 14 February 2009
This is a fantastic book for those interested in physics and the process of change, and an insightful biography of a great scientist.
Richard Feynman was a talented physicist, winner of the Nobel Prize and major contributor to our understanding of particle physics. The term `genius' is often used cheaply, and although Feynman would have declined the description, having read this account it is difficult to argue that he was not fully deserving of the title.
I first became aware of Richard Feynman through quotations credited to him, and was intrigued to find out more about the man behind the ideas. This book deals with his life and achievements and as much of this was directed at the hidden and mysterious world and mathematics that define the inner working of atoms, you might expect a difficult read. Have no fear. James Gleick has done a brilliant job of avoiding the mathematics whilst successfully conveying the ideas that Feynman spent a lifetime working on, without belittling them through oversimplification. Instead he succeeds in graphically illuminating the world of quantum physics as a truly remarkable one where particles exist for fractions of a billionth of a second, appear capable of travelling back in time, and provide the key to unlock our understanding of the universe, gravity and time itself.
`I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.'
That James Gleick is able to graphically convey the work of a genius operating in this field is truly fitting since the hallmark of Feynman's work was a single minded focus on creating and sharing understanding, to create penny dropping moments of revelation, no matter how complex the underlying concepts. His career spanned almost the entire period of the development of modern physics, through to his untimely death in 1988. His life criss-crossed the paths of an array of great scientists such as Einstein, Dirac and Fermi and includes work on the development of the atom bomb and the investigation of the Challenger Shuttle disaster. Along the way he left a trail of discoveries. ideas and people he inspired, and received the Nobel Prize in recognition of only a small part of his contribution to science.
All of this is a fascinating account of a key participant and luminary at the cutting edge of scientific advance. But for me it is so much more. With an interest in the journey of change, this book provides a real insight into the thinking and approach of someone who saw change as an invitation to explore. His guiding principles were that nothing can ever be known with absolute certainty and that all knowledge was partial and temporary. For Feynman, as for Einstein, the most powerful tool in creating advance was imagination.
Rather than the widespread popularly held view that science is about the known,
This is a book full of insights. If you want to glimpse into the world of quantum physics and understand concepts and principles that you may have feared were beyond you, this book does the job. Beyond this the book provides an insight into the thinking of a man who was truly a genius and who defined genius as the ability to question, challenge, understand and create understanding.
Feynman is quoted as saying that he never read a scientific biography that he enjoyed. I agree with the reviewer who on the back cover suggests that he would have enjoyed this one. I read it on holiday and recommend that you set aside a little time to do the same.
17 of 18 people found the following review helpful
on 24 August 2002
I began the book with Feynman as a god-like figure who could do no wrong and after reading the book I found I was mostly right. However, I did appreciate the author's effort to make him human, he had his 'faults' and he was to some extent a man of his time (when it came to his personal life (ie., women)). But when it came to his science, and in particular his mind, the man is a true Genius. His mind works with such clarity and foresight, it's truely amazing. The only part of the book I found not to my liking, was that the author feels the need to explain the ins and outs of some fairly complex physics, which I was not prepared to try to understand. I can only begin to imagine how complex that field is if the version 'we' were given in the book was the very watered-down version of the field. You dont need to understand quantum physics to be amazed by Feynman. In all, it was an insightful book and well worth the time!
20 of 22 people found the following review helpful
on 7 March 2004
For all of us who have studied theoretical physics, Richard Feynman was a cult figure - the magical scientist who brought a breath of fresh air into physics with his innovative style, and irrepressible personality.
Feynman may or may not have been a genius (the description is so difficult). Michael Berry (as of Berry's phase in quantum mechanics) once wrote in a review in Physics World that Feynman was not a physicist of the first rank - which Berry reserved for figures like Einstien and Dirac. That may well be true in a more dispassionate assessment of Feynman. However, what is impossible to deny is that he was one of the most innovative and creative scientists of his age, with a lightning quick mind who left his peers in no doubt that he was a genius. He certainly had the ability of genius - to see patterns and simplicity where others saw just complexity. It takes a deeply creative mind to ascribe pattern and simplicity to nature. Nature does not reveal her secrets easily to lesser mortals (now is that a Feynman quote?).
Feynman the genius needed a genius of a biographer - one who could truly understand the complex melody that was the entirety of the man. Richard Feynman may have marched to the beat of a different drum, as Julian Schwinger so eleganly put it, but it needed another genius to explain and critique the beats, rythms and melodies the great scientist heard. Gleick has made this beat and rythm, the entire symphony if you will, available to the rest of us. This must be one of the most incisive biographies ever written.
Not only was Feynman a genius - I suspect Gleick is as well.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 28 March 2012
This is a 438 page, seriously researched, biography of Richard Feynman (1918-1988) the theoretical physicist famous mainly for work on quantum electrodynamics. I recommend it with the proviso it's difficult to understand particle physics. I didn't find it easy to understand the path integral formulation of quantum physics or Feynman diagrams, and my enjoyment came from getting a feel for Feynman's life and how he worked.
The book is chronological, focussed on his professional rather than personal life, ... growing up in Far Rockaway (western Long Island), education at MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), graduate study and a Ph.D. (maths and physics) at Princeton. Feynman was involved, at a junior level, developing the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos. He went to Cornell (1945-1950) and Caltech (California Institute of Technology) for the rest of his career, winning the Nobel Prize in 1965. Always he showed a heavy concentration on maths and physics and a disregard of high culture.
The author talks about how Feynman approached problems (preferring to encounter a problem then independently work out it's solution), that he often didn't read the literature, that he searched (not so much necessarily for the deep truth about reality as) for a practical understanding - rules or algorithms -that gives the right answers. Gleick talks at length about the nature of scientific progress and genius. Feynman seems to have understood exactly what he was doing (studying a problem, guessing a solution that had testable implications ... and having it tested). His approach was intuitive and, reliant on the unconscious, inherently fast and difficult to explain. Keynes, writing about Newton, said Newton had terrific muscles of intuition that could hold a problem in the mind's-eye until it yielded up it's secrets. Feynman had something similar, a dogged, practical, single-minded intuition, coming at problems from unusual perspectives.
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on 5 May 1999
This book presents the life of Richard P. Feynman a physicist of some repute. It charts his life in incredible detail, outlining to the reader a man of simple tastes who possessed the most incredible capacity for problem solving. Even within peer circles Feynman is known as a genius. In the book itself there is a quote from Dyson who explains that (paraphrasing here) "the work of some people you could look at and think, I could have done that if only I were several hundred times better, even reviewing the solutions of Feynman you still wonder at how he did it". This book left me feeling sad that the world had lost such a man, I would have been honoured to meet him. My summary says it all, a tremendous easy flowing read, bedside or study.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 2 January 2014
It's been a while since I read this book, so I am a bit hazy on the details. All I can say is that this is a great book for anyone who is interested in Richard Feynman. Very accessible book to in terms of the science and what he came up with. Just the right kind of book to ease you into the basics of quantum physics put in real world context so as not to struggle with the abstraction.
10 of 12 people found the following review helpful
on 14 August 2002
Go on folks- read this book. Even if its the only "physiscsy" book you ever read.
A brilliant insight into the mind of a genius (as the name might suggest); truly awe inspiring in places, it makes you realise what an amazing life this gent had.
Definately the best book about Richard Feynman that there is, you'll want to read it again and again.
on 18 April 2015
This is not necessarily a book full of the theories which made Richard Feynman's name, but it is certainly a comprehensive description of a man who is genuinely a great of twentieth century physics. We are taken from his country origins to academic beginnings, from the start witnessing an exceptional talent not seemingly awed in the presence of any other gifted people. Not to miss a thing, we are taken through Feynman's dealings with women, from tender to using, and find tragedy with humour.Feynman's interactions with other scientists makes some of the more interesting episodes in this tome, from laughter to rage. The overall impression of this book is one of a sometimes brilliant, sometimes annoying, and at other times very human person, who despite knocks comes out as an inspirational lecturer, incisive researcher, and possibly a true genius. I recommend this book as scientific history and touching biography.
on 30 March 2014
I loved every page of this book. Gleick's prose is written in a jaunty, effortless style which (for anyone having seen the Feynman Lectures on film) is reminiscent of the great man's own on-stage delivery. It is extremely well balanced in terms of insights into the intimacies of Feynman's life, loves, hobbies etc, and the scientific breakthroughs he made/assisted with throughout the course of his life. The concepts are illustrated clearly without being over-exhaustive on the maths - in fact anyone who has a basic high school mathematical & scientific knowledge should find them easy to grasp. Feynman truly was a remarkable and inspiring character, and is every bit as worthy of recognition as some of the more well-known physicists of the 20th century, e.g. Oppenheimer, Hawking etc.