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Feynman’s Genius

Yours truly, in a 2018 review of Genius, by James Gleick:

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.

In case you’re wondering why I’m linking to my own blog, while this piece dates from 2018, I posted it only a few weeks ago. Originally I posted it on Goodreads, but when Goodreads unceremoniously deleted my account I thought it was gone for good. But two months later, Goodreads sent me my content. I was back in business! With my data recovered and added to my StoryGraph profile, I also took the opportunity to post the one review I had put some effort into on my own site. So here were are.

In other words, I’m more likely to post book reviews on Just a Theory from here on, but meanwhile, I’d be happy to be your friend on StoryGraph.

Review: Project Hail Mary

Cover of “Project Hail Mary” by Andy Weir

Project Hail Mary by Andy Weir
2021 Ballantine Books

Project Hail Mary follows the success of Andy Weir’s first novel, The Martian, and delivers the same kind of enjoyment. If a harrowing story of a solitary man in extreme environments using science and his wits to overcome one obstacle after another then this is the book for you. No super powers, no villains, no other people, really — just the a competent scientist overcoming the odds through experimentation, constant iteration, and sheer creativity. Personally I can’t get enough of it. Shoot it right into my veins.

Andy Weir seems to know his strengths and weaknesses, given these two books. If you want read stories of a diverse array of people interacting and growing through compelling character arcs, well, look elsewhere. Project Hail Mary doesn’t feature characters, really, but archetypes. No one really grows in this story: Ryland Grace, our protagonist and narrator, displays a consistent personality from start to finish. The book attempts to show him overcoming a character flaw, but it comes so late and at such variance to how he behaves and speaks to us that it frankly makes no sense.

But never mind, I can read other books for character growth and interaction. I’m here for the compelling plot, super interesting ideas and challenges (a whole new species that lives on the sun and migrates to Venus to breed? Lay it on me). It tickles my engineering and scientist inclinations, and we could use more of that sort of plotting in media.

So hoover it up. Project Hail Mary is a super fun adventure with compelling ideas, creative, competent people overcoming extreme circumstances without magic or hand-waving, and an unexpected friendship between two like-minded nerds in space.

I bet it’ll make a good movie, too.

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.

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs

Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson

Until a few weeks ago, the biography I read most recently was Dutch, Edmund Morris’s authorized portrait of Ronald Reagan. I read it not because I was interested in Reagan, but because Morris did something unique: he inserted himself into Reagan’s story as a (mostly) fictional character. Why would he do that? Morris grew up in Kenya, far from Reagan’s childhood in Illinois, not to mention years later. And yet there he was, a peripheral character throughout the story of Reagan’s life. What was the point?

Reading the book, the most striking thing about Reagan was how impenetrable he was. No one ever got through to him, to really know him. Perhaps it’s because there was no there there, or maybe there was an interesting person under the bland exterior he used to keep everyone out. It was impossible to know.

Such a personality must frustrate biographers. I want a deep understanding of the subject of a biography, to know what makes her tick, what her motivations and drives are. I want to get inside her head. But Morris couldn’t do that with Reagan. No one could.

I hypothesize that Morris stuck himself in the story, calling it a “Memoir of Ronald Reagan,” to contrast his subject with someone who’s head he could get into. And through that contrast, he drew out a little bit of something to demonstrate what made Reagan tick. Not a lot mind you, but it was an interesting attempt.

I thought about this as I read Steve Jobs, an authorized biography by Walter Isaacson. I’ve been a fan of Apple’s products and vision for many years, but never delved deeply into the wealth of literature on Jobs himself or personal stories such as the birth of the Mac. My main exposure to Steve has been through his keynote presentations and various interviews and appearances over the years. I watch Apple relatively closely, but not Steve. In reading the biography, I wanted to get to know him, to get a feel for the man, and, above all, to find out what makes him tick.

Steve Jobs did give me a feel for the man. Many of the stories about his personality appear to be true. Steve Jobs was clearly a tyrant, but a tyrant with taste. I was struck by the constant theme that Jobs somehow believed that the usual rules don’t apply to him. At one point, pulled over for driving over 100 MPH, Jobs impatiently waits for the ticket, even demanding that the Chippy hurry up. Ticket at last in hand, he drives right up over 100 MPH again, despite a warning that he could lose his license.

Jobs’s famed reality distortion field let him pretend that rules didn’t apply to him, that the world was exactly what he imagined it to be. This ability had advantages (cajoling the CEO of Corning to complete the “impossible” task to start producing huge volumes of Gorilla Glass virtually over night) and disadvantages (trying to cure his cancer with extreme diets).

It was that supreme confidence, combined with his taste, that shaped Jobs’s career and the success of Apple. When it comes to taste, Steve was continually, obsessively product-focused. The quality of the products had to be top notch. You get a feeling for this not so much in the successes of the Macintosh, iPod, iPhone, and iPad, which are well-known, but on the things that shouldn’t matter. Deathly ill following his liver transplant, Jobs was still Jobs:

At one point the pulmonologist tried to put a mask over his face when he was deeply sedated. Jobs ripped it off and mumbled that he hated the design and refused to wear it. Though barely able to speak, he ordered them to bring five different options for the mask and he would pick a design he liked. The doctors looked at Powell, puzzled. She was finally able to distract him so they could put on the mask. He also hated the oxygen monitor they put on his finger. He told them it was ugly and too complex. He suggested ways it could be designed more simply. “He was very attuned to every nuance of the environment and objects around him, and that drained him,” Powell recalled.

This is perhaps the most striking of many examples of Jobs’s obsession with quality and taste, and deftly captures the essence of it. I imagine Jobs thought about how to improve things in his life every second of his life. In his dreams, he might be improving the design of his pajamas or bedroom dresser.

The product obsession drives the book’s narrative, right down to its organization. A few chapters necessarily cover personal events, such as early years, love and marriage, and illness. More are organized around products. Relevant chapter titles:

  • 4: Atari and India: Zen and the Art of Game Design
  • 5: The Apple I: Turn On, Boot Up, Jack In…
  • 6: The Apple II: Dawn of a New Age
  • 8: Xerox and Lisa: Graphical User Interfaces
  • 10: The Mac is Born: You Say You Want a Revolution
  • 12: Design: Real Artists Simplify
  • 13: Building the Mac: The Journey is the Reward
  • 15: The Launch: A Dent in the Universe
  • 18: NeXT: Prometheus Unbound
  • 19: Pixar: Technology Meets Art
  • 22: Toy Story: Buzz and Woody to the Rescue
  • 27: The iMac: Hello (Again)
  • 29: Apple Stores; Genius Bars and Sienna Sandstone
  • 30: The Digital Hub: From iTunes to the iPod
  • 31: The iTunes Store: I’m the Pied Piper
  • 34: Twenty-first-century Macs: Setting Apple Apart
  • 36: The iPhone: Three Revolutionary Products in One
  • 38: The iPad: Into the Post-PC Era
  • 40: To Infinity: The Cloud, the Spaceship, and Beyond

That’s nearly half of them, and all but a few of the others also include extensive discussion of products and design. Clearly Jobs was a man obsessed, that obsession shaped every facet of his life, and it therefore shaped the narrative of his biography.

But where does this come from? From whence derives the absolute faith in even the most most questionable ideas, the unwavering belief in his own infallibility, the near complete obsession with the design of everyday things? I see the ticks, but what makes him tick?

The truth is we don’t know. Isaacson doesn’t know. Sure, there are a few hypotheses about his adoption, about his parents insisting he was special. But I don’t know. Explaining Steve Jobs by his adoption seems like a cop-out. There are millions of adopted people, many with no doubt similar histories (educated biological parents, doting middle-class adoptive parents). But there’s only one Steve Jobs. Jobs himself didn’t buy it, saying he hardly thought about his adoption.

There is also discussion of his study of Zen Buddhism, and his love for simple, beautiful places like Kyoto and Kona Village. I’ve studied a bit of Zen Buddhism and visited Kyoto and Kona Village too, and have a deep appreciation for the beauty of all three. But I’m no Steve Jobs. Perhaps Steve dove very deeply into Zen Buddhism, so that through years of study and practice he became who he was (though, let’s face it, his personality couldn’t be much less Zen). But if so, I think it gets short shrift in Isaacson’s telling.

Perhaps it’s unfair to demand so much of a biographer. I want to go into the head of his subject, on a quest for a deeper understanding of the essence of the person, and come away with a greater knowledge his humanity. Such was impossible for Morris to do with Reagan, and it’s not fair to expect more of Isaacson with Steve Jobs. Not only was Jobs a deeply complex man with an impenetrable presence (one wonders how well Laurene Powell really got to know him; I’d like to read her book), but, hey, how much can one understand anyone else? People have been trying for centuries to understand Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin (including Isaacson!), with, let’s face it, limited success. It’s rare that a biography becomes so completely deep and authoritative — so true, the definitive telling — that no more biographies follow. More often new folks come along, taking different tacks to understand the ticks. Perhaps the best sense we get of an elephant is through the descriptions of all the blind people feeling different parts of the elephant.

I think my favorite tidbit from the book is Jobs playing a rare bootleg CD with a dozen taped sessions of the Beatles “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a gift from Andy Hertzfeld. Listening to the CD with Isaacson, Jobs talks about how the Beatles kept iterating, kept improving the song, working on every aspect over a period of time, getting it “closer to perfect.” Then he says:

The way we build stuff at Apple is often this way. Even the number of models we’d make of a new notebook or iPod. We would start off with a version and then begin refining and refining, doing detailed models of the design, or the buttons, or how a function operates. It’s a lot of work, but in the end it just gets better, and soon its like, “Wow, how did they do that?!? Where are the screws?”

So maybe it’s fair that the narrative is largely product-driven. Jobs talked often over the years about how important good products are to him, much more important than profit, and the book reinforces that. He lived and breathed taste and products, to the exclusion of all else, including, at times, his family and his health.

Perhaps, then, what made Jobs tick was the iPhone and the iPad, and the exultation of being a part of creating a truly inspiring product.

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