Genius - James Gleick
This is a fantastic book for those interested in physics, but more importantly for those interested in change.
It is the biography of Richard Feynman, the talented physicist, winner of the Nobel Prize and major contributor to our understanding of particle physics. The term ‘genius’ is often used cheaply, and although Feynman would have declined the description, having read this account it is difficult to argue that he was not fully deserving of the title.
I first became aware of Richard Feynman through quotations credited to him, and was intrigued to find out more about the man behind the ideas. This book deals with his life and achievements and as much of this was directed at the hidden and mysterious world and mathematics that define the inner working of atoms, you might expect a difficult read. Have no fear. James Gleick has done a brilliant job of avoiding the mathematics whilst successfully conveying the ideas that Feynman spent a lifetime working on, without belittling them through oversimplification. Instead he succeeds in graphically illuminating the world of quantum physics as a truly remarkable one where particles exist for fractions of a billionth of a second, appear capable of travelling back in time, and provide the key to unlock our understanding of the universe, gravity and time itself.
‘I was born not knowing and have had only a little time to change that here and there.’
That James Gleick is able to graphically convey the work of a genius operating in this field is truly fitting since the hallmark of Feynman’s work was a single minded focus on creating and sharing understanding, to create penny dropping moments of revelation, no matter how complex the underlying concepts. His career spanned almost the entire period of the development of modern physics, through to his untimely death in 1988. His life criss-crossed the paths of an array of great scientists such as Einstein, Dirac and Fermi and includes work on the development of the atom bomb and the investigation of the Challenger Shuttle disaster. Along the way he left a trail of discoveries. ideas and people he inspired, and received the Nobel Prize in recognition of only a small part of his contribution to science.
All of this is a fascinating account of a key participant and luminary at the cutting edge of scientific advance. But for me it is so much more. With an interest in the journey of change, this book provides a real insight into the thinking and approach of someone who saw change as an invitation to explore. His guiding principles were that nothing can ever be known with absolute certainty and that all knowledge was partial and temporary. For Feynman, as for Einstein, the most powerful tool in creating advance was imagination.
Rather than the widespread popularly held view that science is about the known, Feynman lived his life in the belief that science was about the process of how things get to be known, and how we understand the extent to which things remain unknown, for nothing is known absolutely.
‘He believed in the primacy of doubt, not as a blemish on our ability to know, but as the essence of knowing. The alternative to uncertainty is authority, against which science has fought for centuries; teach doubt not to be feared but to be welcomed. ... it was not certainty, but freedom from certainty that empowered people to make judgements about right and wrong’ - a true explorer.
We might say that not simply science, but life itself is about the unknown.
This is a book full of insights. If you want to glimpse into the world of quantum physics and understand concepts and principles that you may have feared were beyond you, this book does the job. Beyond this the book provides an insight into the thinking of a man who was truly a genius and who defined genius as the ability to question, challenge, understand and create understanding. Richard Feynman would not have described himself as a genius, simply that whilst most people seek to collect answers and catalogue the known, he spent a lifetime dealing with questions and recognising that nothing is truly known. With this apparently small change in outlook and approach, we are perhaps all geniuses.
‘We are not that much smarter than each other’
Feynman is quoted as saying that he never read a scientific biography that he enjoyed. I agree with the reviewer who on the back cover suggests that he would have enjoyed this one. I read it on holiday and recommend that you set aside a little time to do the same.
August 2 2004.