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Review: Genius

Cover of “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman” by James Gleick

Genius, by James Gleick
1992 Vintage Books

I adore this book. It’s a tour-de-force distillation of the history for mid-20th century physics, through the lens of one of its leading minds. And what a mind! There’s a lot here that kept me up late thinking; it engages my mind as nothing else has since grad school. It gave me a deeper understanding of the way science in general — and physics, in particular — works. And it speaks to my own understanding of the pursuit of knowledge.

For Feynman, the ways of science — its hypotheses, equations, and laws — are not so hard and fast as the popular literature normally suggests. Rather, they’re heuristics, models that help to understand things, to explain things, but they’re never what’s real in and of themselves. This explains why Relativity can subsume Newtonian physics, and itself be subsumed by quantum mechanics. But because the principals of the subsumed frameworks are still tremendously useful, still have explanatory power within their domains, they’re never wrong. They remain supremely useful tools, even if they’re not useful for explaining some kinds of phenomena, for answering some kinds of questions. When new questions arise, when new phenomena are observed that cannot be explained, physicists struggle to invent new tools to explain them, but the old tools are still great.

And this will continue forever. Because our ways of understanding the universe are not the universe itself. They’re explanatory tools we develop, use, and sometimes discard in favor of newer, more effective tools. They’re imperfect, products of their times and cultures. But sometimes, in the face of an intractable problem, a maverick mind, cognizant of this reality, will take the radical step of discarding some part of the prevailing doctrine in an attempt to simplify the problem, or just to see what might happen. Feynman was such a mind, as Gleick shows again and again. Take, for example, Feynman’s radical notion, against the prevailing wisdom in 1939, that electrons cannot act on themselves (p 100):

Implicit in Fenyman’s attitude was a sense that the laws of nature were not to be discovered so much as constructed. Although language blurred the distinction, Feynman was asking not whether an electron acted on itself but whether the theorist could plausibly discard the concept; not whether the field existed in nature, but whether it had to exist in the physicist’s mind.

The book is chock full of details like this, insights into the workings of science and the limitations of the mind. Feynman’s insistence on good analogies, on making connections between the equations and the real world in which we live, are the perhaps better-known example of the same principal. The reasons for this are practical as well as philosophical: Feynman insisted that if he couldn’t prepare a freshman lecture on a topic, he didn’t really understand it himself. The tools at hand were not yet good enough.

The subject of a biography is nothing without the skill of the biographer, and Gleick shows himself equal to it. Not so much as a personal story or a cultural critique: the book is light on personal details, and only briefly covers the prejudices of the discipline and of society. For a more in-depth coverage of the sexism and racism of 20th century physics, and the chauvinism of Feynman and its other practitioners, one will have to look elsewhere. I’d have liked a bit more critique on these topics, but this book prefers to explore the workings of intellectual exploration, the hows and whys and contradictions of an inexhaustible creative mind. At that it excels, a thrilling, intellectually stimulating ride I’d queue up for again and again.

The author himself is no slouch. Not only does Gleick turn the development of 20th century physics into an exciting intellectual page-turner, but he also digresses on interesting topics of his own. Not superfluously tangential, either: a 28-page disquisition on the history, definitions, and philosophical underpinnings of the very idea of “genius” held me in thrall.

The whole book did. The subject, the time, the discipline, the intelligence, the pragmatism, it all works, held together both in the figure of Feynman himself and in the telling of his story and that of the field he helped to advance. This is a rare gem of a book. You should read it. I expect to return to it again, myself, in the years to come.

Originally published on Goodreads.