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:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Cosmology for the Curious - Delia Perlov and Alex Vilenkin ***

In the recently published The Little Book of Black Holes we saw what I thought was pretty much impossible - a good, next level, general audience science title, spanning the gap between a typical popular science book and an introductory textbook, but very much in the style of popular science. Cosmology for the Curious does something similar, but coming from the other direction. This is an introductory textbook, intended for first year physics students, with familiar textbook features like questions to answer at the end of each chapter. Yet by incorporating some history and context, plus taking a more relaxed style in the writing, it's certainly more approachable than a typical textbook.

The first main section, The Big Bang and the Observable Universe not only covers basic big bang cosmology but fills in the basics of special and general relativity, Hubble's law, dark matter, dark energy and more. We then move onto the more speculative (this is cosmology, after all) aspects, brin…

Astrophysics for People in a Hurry – Neil deGrasse Tyson *****

When I reviewed James Binney’s Astrophysics: A Very Short Introduction earlier this year, I observed that the very word ‘astrophysics’ in a book’s title is liable to deter many readers from buying it. As a former astrophysicist myself, I’ve never really understood why it’s considered such a scary word, but that’s the way it is. So I was pleasantly surprised to learn, from Wikipedia, that this new book by Neil deGrasse Tyson ‘topped The New York Times non-fiction bestseller list for four weeks in the middle of 2017’.

Like James Binney, Tyson is a professional astrophysicist with a string of research papers to his name – but he’s also one of America’s top science popularisers, and that’s the hat he’s wearing in this book. While Binney addresses an already-physics-literate audience, Tyson sets his sights on a much wider readership. It’s actually very brave – and honest – of him to give physics such prominent billing; the book could easily have been given a more reader-friendly title such …

Once upon and Algorithm - Martin Erwig ***

I've been itching to start reading this book for some time, as the premise was so intriguing - to inform the reader about computer science and algorithms using stories as analogies to understand the process.

This is exactly what Martin Erwig does, starting (as the cover suggests) with Hansel and Gretel, and then bringing in Sherlock Holmes (and particularly The Hound of the Baskervilles), Indiana Jones, the song 'Over the Rainbow' (more on that in a moment), Groundhog Day, Back to the Future and Harry Potter.

The idea is to show how some aspect of the story - in the case of Hansel and Gretel, laying a trail of stones/breadcrumbs, then attempting to follow them home - can be seen as a kind of algorithm or computation and gradually adding in computing standards, such as searching, queues and lists, loops, recursion and more.

This really would have been a brilliant book if Erwig had got himself a co-author who knew how to write for the public, but sadly the style is mostly heavy…