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Genius: the life and science of Richard Feynman – James Gleick ****

Richard Feynman was both one of the greatest scientists of the twentieth century (what the heck, one of the greatest scientists ever!) and was also a complex and not always likeable character.
This fat biography isn’t Gleick’s best book, but it does make a better job of integrating the story of Feyman’s life and scientific work than the competing volume by John and Mary Gribbin which tends to alternate chunks of history and chunks of science. Gleick makes you work harder to understand what’s going on, but on the whole it’s worth the work.
He’s less successful when he gets all philosophical – for instance the rather tedious section where he tries to analyse genius. (He will also get up the nose of plenty of readers by dismissing, for instance, Mozart’s genius. I’m not that fond of Mozart’s music myself, but can’t fail to recognise the genius of someone who could go to the Sistine Chapel and hear Allegri’s amazing Miserere (the chapel choir’s secret weapon at the time) once, then write it down later note perfect. Gleick misses the point that the man’s genius was about more than knocking up a good tune which might later fall out of fashion. But this book isn’t about music, so enough said.
What comes across superbly in this book is something that hasn’t really been shown in any of the other Feynman books we’ve covered – a real feeling for the slow (and sometimes frustrating) build of a theory, rather than being presented whole and complete.
As was the case with Gleick’s biography of Newton, this book really isn’t enough on its own. It’s well worth coupling it with at the very least Feyman’s superb tales (well improved though they may be in) in Surely You Must be Joking Mr Feynman – and if you’re feeling brave also Feynman’s book QED that will really explain one aspect of the science that Gleick can only hint at. It may also be worth reading the Gribbin book to get a rounder picture, but if you are only going to read one popular science biography of Feynman, this is the one.

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Review by Brian Clegg

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