Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman
by James Gleick
Pantheon, 531 pp., $27.50
Richard Feynman was the Michael Jordan of physics. His intellectual leaps, seemingly weightless, defied explanation. One of his teammates on the high school math team in Far Rockaway, Long Island, recalls that Feynman “would get this unstudied insight while the problem was still being read out, and his opponents, before they could begin to compute, would see him ostentatiously write down a single number and draw a circle around it. Then he would let out a loud sigh.” At twenty-three, he amazed a Princeton colleague when he worked out at the blackboard a proof of an important proposition of physics that had been only loosely conjectured eight years earlier by the Nobel Prize winner Paul Dirac. In 1960, in his early forties, restless and unable to find a physics problem worth working on, Feynman taught himself enough biology to make an original discovery of how mutations work in genes.
Feynman rarely read the scientific literature. When he did, he would read only far enough into an article to see what the problem was, fold up the journal, and then derive the results on his own. When a colleague, after perhaps months of calculations, walked into Feynman’s office with a new result, he would often discover that Feynman already knew not only that result, but a more sweeping one, which he had kept in his file drawer and regarded as not worth publishing. The mathematician Mark Kac has said that “there are two kinds of geniuses, the ordinary and the magicians. An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better.” But for the second kind, “even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark….” He called Feynman “a magician of the highest caliber.”
Scientific genius alone would not have explained Feynman’s legend. It was also his style. He was stubborn, irreverent, unrefined, uncultured, proud, playful, intensely curious, and highly original in practically everything he did. He had a mystique. There are hundreds of “Feynman stories,” some told by Feynman himself in his popular book Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, and others passed along by word of mouth from one physicist to another, like beheld visitations passed from one disciple to another. As a graduate student at Princeton, for example, Feynman would spend long afternoons leading ants to a box of sugar suspended by a string, in an attempt to learn how ants communicate. When Feynman noticed that his Ph.D. thesis adviser, John Wheeler, pointedly placed his pocket watch down on a table during their first meeting, Feynman came to their second meeting with a cheap pocket watch of his own and placed it on the table next to Wheeler’s. At Los Alamos, when he was working on the Manhattan Project, the young Feynman continually alarmed other scientists and the military brass by cracking their safes, which were filled with atomic secrets.