Where the Wild
Scientists Are: 1993

Genius: The Life and Science
of Richard Feynman
by James Gleick
Pantheon, 1992

Scientists are, in the popular mind, the crowned royalty of nerddom. One-dimensional dweebs with thick glasses, mossy teeth, and bad complexions about as lively as inert gas. Oh, sure, they can do differential calculus in their heads, but can they get a date? Do they do anything but scribble on blackboards? Do they ever have any fun?


The notion of sad-eyed Albert Einstein punctuating "say, what's your sign, little mama?" with an uncouth leer, Isaac Newton jamming frenetically on the harpsichord, or an impish Galileo dropping his breeches to toss a moon instead of observing one are images so incompatible as to exceed the limits of even the richest imagination. Scientists chase natural laws, not women; play slide rules, not slide trombones; and have neither the time nor inclination for ribald grab-assing.

Like Clevinger's mantra in Catch-22: "Everybody says so."

But those who do obviously never met the late--and, yes, great--Richard Feynman.

Regarded by many colleagues as the greatest scientific mind since World War II for his groundbreaking work in particle physics, Feynman, who died of cancer in 1988, was not only a Nobel laureate, but also musician and talented artist as well as a shameless extrovert, notorious heterosexual, gleeful prankster, and all-around wiseass who partied down in global fun spots from Rio to Las Vegas. A combustible larger-than-life mix of intellectual knight errant and royal pain-in-the-butt.

It's a safe bet that there will likely never be another Nobel-winning physicist who played the congo drum in a samba band, worked out his cutting-edge calculations in a topless bar, and included a guide on how to pick up women in his informal autobiography.

It would be appropriate, perhaps, to label Feynman a "Renaissance Man" were that term not so diluted from its application to everyone from television sit-com stars who scribble a few lines of poetic doggerel to major league athletes who speak in complete sentences. Instead, let's just say that, in this Jewish-American son of a New York uniform salesman, we find a remarkable marriage of transcendental intellect, hubris, and frat house debauchery. A "character" to be sure. But also a genius.

There are "ordinary geniuses", writes biographer James Gleick in Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, quoting mathematician Mark Kac, of whom brilliant colleagues say "we would be just as good as, if we were only many times better." Much of what passes for genius, Gleick contends in his little mini-essay "In Search of Genius" in the middle of the book, is mere excellence. Then, he argues, there are the "magicians"--true geniuses, both "deliverers and destroyers" who set their minds free from "worn channels of tradition" and change history; who "even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark."

Feynman was a magician.

Growing up in Far Rockaway on Long Island, Feynman spent his childhood repairing neighbors' radios and reading calculus texts for fun. Later, he gained admission to M.I.T. despite a mediocre high school record--a source of "in your face" satisfaction to the brash physicist who, upon returning home from Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm, looked up his IQ. It was 125. Feynman was ecstatic. "To win a Nobel Prize," he said, "is no big deal, but to win it with an IQ of 125, now that's something."

After earning a doctorate at Princeton in 1942, Feynman was rejected by the military as unfit; when an army shrink asked him how much he valued his life, he responded with a smile and an arbitrary "64". So he ended up in Los Alamos, New Mexico rubbing elbows with demi-gods Enrico Fermi, Edward Teller, and Robert Oppenheimer, and help build the atomic bomb. Only 27, Feynman quickly became the Manhattan Project's enfant terrible who, when he wasn't cooking plutonium, spent his time breaking into safes containing top secret documents and leaving notes reading "Same Guy".

Upon returning home from Nobel ceremonies in Stockholm, [he] looked up his I.Q. It was 125. Feynman was ecstatic. "To win a Nobel Prize," he said, "is no big deal, but to win it with an I.Q. of 125, now that's something."

Finally, "after two years in this brown desert," Gleick writes, "they had converted some matter into energy"--a transformation confirmed by the first nuclear explosion at Alamagordo, New Mexico on the morning of July 16, 1945. Here, Gleick dramatically contrasts the reaction of the dour Oppenheimer, afficionado of Eastern mysticism, who, staring at the fireball intoned a passage from the Bhagavad-Gita, "Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds", with that of the whooping, giddy Feynman who nearly "floated through the roof of the bus." But later, the enormity of the event suppressed Feynman's initial glee. After Hiroshima, he would sit darkly in restaurants across the country and calculate how many miles would be destroyed if a bomb hit.

Coming out of Los Alamos as "the most brilliant, iconoclastic, and influential physicist of modern times," Feynman assumed professorships first at Cornell, and later at Cal Tech where his rivalry began with Murray Gell-Mann whose quarks are the latest inhabitants of the sub-atomic model that these two great thinkers largely created.

Gleick, whose Chaos (1987) was a National Book Award nominee, has written an exhaustingly comprehensive book that uses Feynman's life to track the history of contemporary physics, "our modern secular religion". In making the case that in Feynman, the flashy public persona snitched center stage from the scientific genius, Gleick's work is alternately readable and abstruse--and sometimes overwhelming.

The general reader may find himself cut adrift when Gleick spends page after page hashing quantum theory, his narrative assuming the tone of a research paper (".....the slow disappearance of V-particles suggested that their creation relied on strong forces and that weak forces came into play as they decayed......this y was like a new form of charge (and that) strong interactions would conserve y, and so would electromagnetic interactions...."). Get the picture? But it's easy to quickly skim over these sections and focus on Gleick's portrait of Feynman himself--a generally fascinating, if sometimes bloodless, evocation.

When Gleick lets Feynman speak for himself, the narrative comes alive. For example, after accepting his Nobel Prize in 1965 for an improved theory of quantum electrodynamics (how electromagnetism works on the tiny scale of subatomic particles), the grand finale to 20 years of discoveries in quantum physics, a reporter asked the cocky icon to put what he had discovered in lay terms. "Hell, if I could explain it to the average person," Feynman replied, "it wouldn't be worth a Nobel Prize." Yet the same Feynman could--and often did--fuse wit and intellect when explaining his baffling ideas to lay audiences, as he did in describing one of the more obscure particles he worked on: "the neutrino is almost, but not quite, totally useless--take your son-in-law as a model."

But when Gleick paraphrases Feynman--as he does too often--the vitality is diminished and the distance between Feynman and the reader extended. The sense of being in a room listening to an utterly charming smart aleck irrepressibly full of himself speaking his considerable mind is replaced with the kind of detached curiosity one associates with looking through a microscope at a particularly interesting tissue sample.

The problem confronting Gleick was that Feynman himself had, in 1984, published the surprising best-seller Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (whose title comes from the snooty put-down of a Princeton grand dame responding to his nervous request for both cream and lemon in his tea) loaded with the same "Feynman stories" (an entire literary sub-genre in scientific circles) that Gleick cites. Hence, he couldn't, in essence, re-write an earlier work.

Still, Genius, more than any previous account, polishes the Feynman myth to a burnished luster.

The arcane relationship between matter and energy is scarcely expressible, even by the experts, in the crude language of words and written equations. So Feynman invented the funny little ideograms that bear his name ("Feynman diagrams") to show how sub-atomic particles affect each other--defiantly proving to a skeptical physics establishment that the squiggle could be as useful a tool as a formula.

Then there was Feynman as folk hero, taking on the good-old-boy network of defense contractors and hacking his way through NASA's acronym-infested jungles as a member of the Presidential Commission investigating the 1986 Challenger disaster. Thumbing his nose at the official NASA line that it would be impossible to test the theory that the cold weather had prevented the rubber O-rings in the booster rockets from properly expanding to seal the joint, Feynman--on national television yet--took a piece of the rubber, squeezed it with a small C-clamp, and dunked it in a glass of ice water, instantly demonstrating the precipitating cause of the disaster by removing it from byzantine scientific complexity to a dining room experience and casting him in the national consciousness as "the outsider who pushed aside red tape.....the enemy of hypocrisy....the boy who saw the emperor with no clothes."

And for a man whose self-assuredness often touched the edge of arrogance, Gleick shows that Feynman could be surprisingly contrite. Responding to the only other modern physicist to capture the popular imagination, Stephen Hawking, who asserted that "we may now be near the end of the search for the ultimate laws of nature," Feynman shook his head. "The answer is probably not just around the corner," he said just before his death, "but I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell."

Dying of cancer, Feynman anguished that any biographer would portray him "either as a bloodless intellectual or a bongo-playing clown." Gleick does neither. Instead, in his balanced characterization, he reveals a man with both a robust appetite for living and "a mind that worked differently from other people's", leaving his reader with the singular impression that genius, when used cleanly and boldly, is always impressive, like a brilliant surgical operation.

And it is impossible to read Genius without feeling that Richard Feynman's mind was one of the most sharply-honed cutting instruments in the whole history of science.

-Doug Rennie

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Last Modified: 04 July 1995 by Darrel Plant
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