'Genius' is much more than a standard biography

November 15, 1992|By Myron Beckenstein

GENIUS: THE LIFE

AND SCIENCE

OF RICHARD FEYNMAN.

James Gleick.

Pantheon.

532 pages. $27.50.

Not only does James Gleick think Richard Feynman was a genius, he thinks he "was the most brilliant, iconoclastic, and influential physicist of modern times." Considering the competition, that's quite a statement.

"No other physicist since Einstein so ecumenically accepted the challenge of all nature's riddles," he explains in one place. "Feynman developed a stature among physicists that transcended any raw sum of his actual contributions to the field," says at another.

Feynman's colleagues seem to agree. One said, "Dick is not a person at all but a more advanced life form pretending to be human to spare your feelings."

That Feynman's abilities transcended mere brilliance was recognized early. He was chosen to take part in the Manhattan Project (that developed the atomic bomb) before he even had his doctorate and was put in charge of one of the working groups at Los Alamos.

He went on to a distinguished career in research and as a teacher and shared in the 1965 Nobel physics prize.

He gained his last measure of public notice shortly before his death when he sat on the panel established to look into the Challenger disaster -- or, as Mr. Gleick sees it, established to cover up the disaster.

Feynman did not accept theoretical musings about what the cold weather might or might not have done to the space shuttle's O-rings. Instead, he devised a simple experiment that he conducted on his desk during the hearings to settle the matter.

Feynman also gained some popular fame in the 1980s with two books he wrote, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" The books showed a man who was not a stereotype theoretical scientist but a remarkably wide-ranging and playful person who enjoyed life as much outside his discipline as inside. There he was, cracking safes at Los Alamos, frequenting bars, playing the frigideira in a Brazilian samba band.

Mr. Gleick says that the stories in the books, like many good stories, may have been adapted somewhat for effect. Unfortunately, he does not spend much time recounting his versions of them. The Feynman that emerges from his book is both more and less interesting because of this -- less because they are wonderful stories, more because he paints a more substantial person than Feynman himself painted.

"His own view of himself worked less to illuminate than to hide the nature of his genius," Mr. Gleick explains.

Most biographies skip over a person's early life, spending a paragraph or two or a page or two on it. Mr. Gleick dwells on Feynman's. The wide-interested adult turns out to have been a very narrow pupil who barely got by some of his non-math and -science courses because he didn't care about them. Feynman doesn't finish with college until a third of the way through the book. Sharing these years adds immeasurably to our knowledge and appreciation of the man.

In Mr. Gleick's hands, Feynman is shown as a multifaceted three-dimensional person. His marriages, his womanizing, his iconoclasm all are dealt with. One of the most touching, insightful episodes is a letter Feynman wrote to his first wife two years after her early death.

But this book is more than "The Life of Richard Feynman." It is "The Life and Science of Richard Feynman." Large portions of the text are devoted to discussing some of the physics problems Feynman concerned himself with throughout his life.

One would assume that Mr. Gleick wrote with the lay reader in mind, but this lay reader usually found the science difficult to follow. Feynman once confused a questioner by apparently not being able to answer a simple question. He finally explained that the problem was that he didn't know at what level to answer the question. Mr. Gleick may have chosen too high a level.

I would hope and assume that his science is accurate, even though in making one point he picked up the wrong figure for the number of kilometers in a mile.

Mr. Gleick's ambitious, well-written book is much more than a standard biography, and is all the better because it is. An interesting subject has found a talented portrayer. "Genius" already is a finalist for a National Book Award.

Mr. Beckenstein is assistant foreign editor of The Sun.

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