Skip to main content

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.

Paperback:  
Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Grace Lindsay - Four Way Interview

Grace Lindsay is a computational neuroscientist currently based at University College, London. She completed her PhD at the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at Columbia University, where her research focused on building mathematical models of how the brain controls its own sensory processing. Before that, she earned a bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience from the University of Pittsburgh and received a research fellowship to study at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Freiburg, Germany. She was awarded a Google PhD Fellowship in Computational Neuroscience in 2016 and has spoken at several international conferences. She is also the producer and co-host of Unsupervised Thinking , a podcast covering topics in neuroscience and artificial intelligence. Her first book is Models of the Mind . Why science? I started my undergraduate degree as a neuroscience and philosophy double major and I think what drew me to both topics was the idea that if we just think rigorously enou

A Citizen's Guide to Artificial Intelligence - John Zerilli et al ****

The cover of this book set off a couple of alarm bells. Not only does that 'Citizen's Guide' part of the title raise the spectre of a pompous book-length moan, the list of seven authors gives the feel of a thesis written by committee. It was a real pleasure, then, to discover that this is actually a very good book. I ought to say straight away what it isn't - despite that title, it isn't a book written in a style that's necessarily ideal for a general audience. Although the approach is often surprisingly warm and human, it is an academic piece of writing. As a result, in places it's a bit of a trudge to get through it. Despite this, though, the topic is important enough - and, to be fair, the way it is approached is good enough - that it deserves to be widely read. John Zerilli et al give an effective, very balanced exploration of artificial intelligence. Although not structured as such, it's a SWOT analysis, giving us the strengths, weaknesses, opportun

The Science of Can and Can't - Chiara Marletto *****

Without doubt, Chiara Marletto has achieved something remarkable here, though the nature of the topic does not make for an easy read. The book is an attempt to popularise constructor theory - a very different approach to physics, which Oxford quantum physicist David Deutsch has developed with Marletto. Somewhat oddly, the book doesn't use the term constructor theory, but rather the distinctly clumsier 'science of can and can't'. The idea is that physics is formulated in a way that is inherently limited because it depends on using mechanisms that follows the progress of dynamic systems using the laws of physics. This method isn't applicable in circumstances where either something may happen, but won't necessarily, nor where something isn't allowed to happen (hence the science of can and can't, which probably should be the science of could and can't if we are going to be picky). Deutsch and Marletto have proposed a way of using 'counterfactuals'