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Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

4.1 16
by James Gleick

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An illuminating portrayal of Richard Feynman—a giant of twentieth century physics—from his childhood tinkering with radios, to his vital work on the Manhattan Project and beyond 
Raised in Depression-era Rockaway Beach, physicist Richard Feynman was irreverent, eccentric, and childishly enthusiastic—a new kind of scientist in


An illuminating portrayal of Richard Feynman—a giant of twentieth century physics—from his childhood tinkering with radios, to his vital work on the Manhattan Project and beyond 
Raised in Depression-era Rockaway Beach, physicist Richard Feynman was irreverent, eccentric, and childishly enthusiastic—a new kind of scientist in a field that was in its infancy. His quick mastery of quantum mechanics earned him a place at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project under J. Robert Oppenheimer, where the giddy young man held his own among the nation’s greatest minds. There, Feynman turned theory into practice, culminating in the Trinity test, on July 16, 1945, when the Atomic Age was born. He was only twenty-seven. And he was just getting started. In this sweeping biography, James Gleick captures the forceful personality of a great man, integrating Feynman’s work and life in a way that is accessible to laymen and fascinating for the scientists who follow in his footsteps.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
It would be hard to tell personal stories about the late Nobelist Feynman (1918-1988) better than the subject himself did in What Do You Care What Other People Think? To his credit, Gleick does not try. Rather, he depicts Feynman's ``curious character'' in its real context: the science he helped develop during physics' most revolutionary era. Fans of Feynman's own bestseller, ``Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! , '' won't be disappointed by his colleagues' recollections of his reckless obsession with doing science (a grad-school dorm neighbor once opened Feynman's door to find him rolling on the floor as he worked on a problem); but the anecdotes punctuate an expanded account of Feynman the visceral working scientist, not Feynman the iconoclast. This biography wants to measure both the particle and the wave of 20th-century genius--Feynman's, Julian Schwinger's, Murray Gell-Mann's, and others'--in the quantum era. Gleick seems to have enjoyed the cooperation of Feynman's family plus that of a good many of his colleagues from the Manhattan Project and the Challenger inquiry (in which Feynman played a scene-stealing role), and he steadily levies just enough of the burden of Feynman's genius on the reader so that the physicist remains, in the end, a person and not an icon of science. A genius could not hope for better. Gleick is the author of Chaos: The Making of A New Science. (Oct.)
Library Journal
When Nobel laureate Feynman died in 1988, the world lost one of the most creative, idiosyncratic, and important minds of the 20th century. From ``Feynman Diagrams'' to the Manhattan Project to the Challenger investigation, Feynman left his mark on everything and every life that he touched. Gleick, author of Chaos ( LJ 8/87), does a masterful job of capturing Feynman as both a scientist and as a mind at work: No better primer on Feynman's accomplishments will be written. Gleick is clear without condescension, accurate without being fussy, and thorough without being pedantic. As regards the personal minutiae of Feynman's life, this book is somewhat less comprehensive: Feynman's checkered history of personal relationships, for example, is not treated in the same exhaustive manner as his professional relationships. Feynman's personality, though, comes through in every word of this marvelous book. Although, astonishingly, Gleick never even met Feynman, he has written one of the most touching, affecting, and important works of scientific biography to have been produced in the last 30 years, a fine book that deserves a place in every collection. Previewed in Prepub Alert, LJ 6/1/92; see also Feynman's personal narratives coauthored with Ralph Leighton, ``Surely You're Jok ing, Mr. Feynman , '' LJ 3/15/85, and `` What Do You Care What Other People Think? , '' LJ 11/15/88, as well as Leighton's Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman's Last Journey , LJ 3/1/91.--Ed.-- Mark L. Shelton, Athens, Ohio
Gleick (Chaos) gives us a major biography of one of science's most endearing figures (except to snobs & frauds). Feynman's brilliance, independence, humanity are readably displayed. His contributions to physics are interpreted for the lay reader. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
Donna Seaman
Gleick is at home in some dauntingly complex realms, as demonstrated in his book "Chaos: Making a New Science" and now in this impressively cogent, probing, and vivid portrait of Richard Feynman, "the most brilliant, iconoclastic, and influential physicist of modern times." Feynman was brash, theatrical, energetic, and uncompromising. The Nobel Prize winner was a wizard at calculation and visualization, developing pioneering theories of superfluidity, diffusion, and radioactive decay as well as laying the groundwork for the understanding of quarks. A "perpetual fidgeter," he hated music but was an exceptional drummer, picked locks and cracked safes for fun, and was a magnetic storyteller as well as a legendary womanizer. As Gleick follows the path of Feynman's unique life, he profiles his colleagues, tells the story of Los Alamos, where Feynman was a group leader, and tracks the evolution of postwar theoretical physics. Gleick does a superb job of conveying the essence of Feynman's humanity as well as his astonishing mind, pausing for reflection on the nature of Feynman's "quicksilver genius" and a careful analysis of his accomplishments as a "mercilessly skeptical" scientist and educator. Feisty to the last, Feynman died of two unusual forms of cancer, possible legacies of his work with the atomic bomb. A must-have for all science collections.
Kirkus Reviews
"He is a second Dirac," Princeton's Eugene Wigner said, "only this time human." That's only one of the many pithy descriptions that Gleick (Chaos, 1987) quotes in this fine, monumental biography of a monumental figure in 20th-century physics. Readers whose appetites were whetted by the as-told-to collections of anecdotes in the Ralph Leighton books (Tuva or Bust!, 1991, etc.) will find gratification of a different kind here. There are wit and playfulness, yes, but what shines through is Richard Feynman's commitment to probe nature, a restlessness to understand why things happen, and the joy and beauty he felt when science yielded an answer—and that is the key to understanding what drove Feynman throughout his life. That, and a no-nonsense attitude that despised pretension, lofty language, and rote learning. In the post-Sputnik days of educational reform, Feynman was out in front criticizing the new math as utterly useless formalism (unless you could use it to explain to kids different orders of infinity). While Feynman was best known for his Nobel- winning work in quantum electrodynamics and subsequent achievements in particle physics, Gleick traces the many byways in the physicist's career: his study of helium superfluidity; his brief flirtation with molecular biology; his interest in sleep and dreams. And then there were his involvement with the Manhattan Project; the loss to tuberculosis of his beloved Arline; his relentless womanizing; his eventual marriage to Gweneth—the English woman he met on a beach in Geneva and arranged to bring over as his domestic servant; his children; his lectures; his refusal to take graduate students; his skepticism about grand unifiedtheories; the Challenger disaster. Gleick weaves all these threads into a rich portrait of an imperfect, complex, to-his-own-self-and-to-science-be-true figure, loved and admired, yet elusive. (Twenty-four pages of b&w photographs—not seen.)

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The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

By James Gleick


Copyright © 1992 James Gleick
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4532-1043-7



Eventually the art went out of radio tinkering. Children forgot the pleasures of opening the cabinets and eviscerating their parents' old Kadettes and Clubs. Solid electronic blocks replaced the radio set's messy innards—so where once you could learn by tugging at soldered wires and staring into the orange glow of the vacuum tubes, eventually nothing remained but featureless ready-made chips, the old circuits compressed a thousandfold or more. The transistor, a microscopic quirk in a sliver of silicon, supplanted the reliably breakable tube, and so the world lost a well-used path into science.

In the 1920s, a generation before the coming of solid-state electronics, one could look at the circuits and see how the electron stream flowed. Radios had valves, as though electricity were a fluid to be diverted by plumbing. With the click of the knob came a significant hiss and hum, just at the edge of audibility. Later it was said that physicists could be divided into two groups, those who had played with chemistry sets and those who had played with radios. Chemistry sets had their appeal, but a boy like Richard Feynman, loving diagrams and maps, could see that the radio was its own map, a diagram of itself. Its parts expressed their function, once he learned to break the code of wires, resistors, crystals, and capacitors. He assembled a crystal set, attached oversized earphones from a rummage sale, and listened under the bedcovers until he fell asleep. Sometimes his parents would tiptoe in and take the earphones off their sleeping boy. When atmospheric conditions were right, his radio could pull in signals from far away—Schenectady in upstate New York or even station WACO from Waco, Texas. The mechanism responded to the touch. To change channels he slid a contact across a wire coil. Still, the radio was not like a watch, with gears and wheels. It was already one step removed from the mechanical world. Its essential magic was invisible after all. The crystal, motionless, captured waves of electromagnetic radiation from the ether.

Yet there was no ether—no substance bearing these waves. If scientists wished to imagine radio waves propagating with the unmistakable undulating rhythm of waves in a pond, they nonetheless had to face the fact that these waves were not in anything. Not in the era of relativity: Einstein was showing that if an ether existed it would have to be motionless with respect to any and all observers—though they themselves moved in different directions. This was impossible. "It seems that the aether has betaken itself to the land of the shades in a final effort to elude the inquisitive search of the physicist!" the mathematician Hermann Weyl wrote in 1918, the year Feynman was born. Through what medium, then, were radio waves sweeping in their brief journey from the aerials of downtown New York to Feynman's second-story bedroom in a small frame house on the city's outskirts? Whatever it was, the radio wave was only one of the many sorts of oscillations disturbing every region of space. Waves of light, physically identical to radio waves but many times shorter, crisscrossing hectically; infrared waves, perceptible as heat on the skin; the ominously named X rays; the ultra-high-frequency gamma rays, with wavelengths smaller than atoms—all these were just different guises of one phenomenon, electromagnetic radiation. Already space was an electromagnetic babel, and human-built transmitters were making it busier still. Fragmented voices, accidental clicks, slide-whistle drones: strange noises passed through one another, more waves in a well-corrugated waviness. These waves coexisted not in the ether but in a rather more abstract medium, the precise nature of which was posing difficulties for physicists. They could not imagine what it was—a problem that was only mildly allayed by the fact that they had a name for it, the electromagnetic field, or just the field. The field was merely a continuous surface or volume across which some quantity varied. It had no substance, yet it shook; it vibrated. Physicists were discovering that the vibrations sometimes behaved like particles, but this just complicated the issue. If they were particles, they were nonetheless particles with an undeniably wavelike quality that enabled boys like Feynman to tune in to certain desirable wavelengths, the ones carrying "The Shadow" and "Uncle Don" and advertisements for Eno Effervescent Salts. The scientific difficulties were obscure, known only to a handful of scientists more likely to speak German than English. The essence of the mystery, however, was clear to amateurs who read about Einstein in the newspapers and pondered the simple magic of a radio set.

No wonder so many future physicists started as radio tinkerers, and no wonder, before physicist became a commonplace word, so many of them grew up thinking they might become electrical engineers, professionals known to earn a good wage. Richard, called Ritty by his friends, seemed to be heading single-mindedly in that direction. He accumulated tube sets and an old storage battery from around the neighborhood. He assembled transformers, switches, and coils. A coil salvaged from a Ford automobile made showy sparks that burned brown-black holes in newspaper. When he found a leftover rheostat, he pushed 110-volt electricity through it until it overloaded and burned. He held the stinking, smoking thing outside his second-floor window, as the ashes drifted down to the grassy rear yard. This was standard emergency procedure. When a pungent odor drifted in downstairs during his mother's bridge game, it meant that Ritty was dangling his metal wastebasket out the window, waiting for the flames to die out after an abortive experiment with shoe polish—he meant to melt it and use the liquid as black paint for his "lab," a wooden crate roughly the size of a refrigerator, standing in his bedroom upstairs in the rear of the house. Screwed into the crate were various electrical switches and lights that Ritty had wired, in series and in parallel. His sister, Joan, nine years younger, served eagerly as a four-cents-a-week lab assistant. Her duties included putting a finger into a spark gap and enduring a mild shock for the entertainment of Ritty's friends.

It had already occurred to psychologists that children are innate scientists, probing, puttering, experimenting with the possible and impossible in a confused local universe. Children and scientists share an outlook on life. If I do this, what will happen? is both the motto of the child at play and the defining refrain of the physical scientist. Every child is observer, analyst, and taxonomist, building a mental life through a sequence of intellectual revolutions, constructing theories and promptly shedding them when they no longer fit. The unfamiliar and the strange—these are the domain of all children and scientists.

None of which could fully account for the presence of laboratory, rheostat, and lab assistant—tokens of a certain vivid cultural stereotype. Richard Feynman was relentless in filling his bedroom with the trappings and systems of organized science.

Neither Country nor City

Charmed lives were led by the children of Far Rockaway, a village that amounted to a few hundred acres of frame houses and brick apartment blocks on a spit of beach floating off Long Island's south shore. The neighborhood had been agglomerated into the political entity of New York City as one of the more than sixty towns and neighborhoods that merged as the borough of Queens in 1898. The city was investing generously in these neighborhoods, spending tens of millions of dollars on the laying of water mains, sewers, and roadways and the construction of grand public buildings. Still, in the first part of the twentieth century, before the IND subway line reached out across the marshes of Jamaica Bay, the city seemed a faraway place. Commuters took the Long Island Rail Road. Beyond Far Rockaway's eastern border lay the small towns of Nassau County, Long Island. To the northwest, across marshy tongues of ocean called Mott Basin and Hassock Channel, lay a flat expanse that later became Idlewild Airport and then Kennedy International Airport. On foot or on their bicycles, Far Rockaway's children had free run of a self-contained world: ivy-covered houses, fields, and vacant lots. No one has yet isolated the circumstances that help a child grow whole and independent, but they were present. At some point in a town's evolution, houses and fences grow dense enough to form a connected barrier. When that critical point is reached, movement is mostly restricted to public streets. In Far Rockaway boys and girls still percolated through the neighborhood and established their own paths through backyards and empty lots behind the houses and streets. They were autonomous and enterprising in play, roaming far from their parents' immediate oversight, riding their bicycles without accounting for their whereabouts. They could wander through fields on the way to the shore, and then they could rent boats and row them up and down the protected inlets. Richard walked to the library and, sitting on the stone steps, watched people go by in all directions. Distant as New York seemed, he felt bound enough to the great city to look down on the outsiders living a few blocks away, in Cedarhurst, Long Island. But he also knew that his neighborhood was a place apart.

"When I was a child I thought we lived at the end of the world," wrote another New Yorker, the critic Alfred Kazin; he grew up in Brownsville, a Brooklyn neighborhood a little poorer and almost as remote, another district of Jewish immigrants and children of immigrants occupying that unusual boundary between the urban and the rural. "There were always raw patches of unused city land all around us filled with 'monument works' where they cut and stored tombstones, as there were still on our street farmhouses and the remains of old cobbled driveways," he wrote—"most of it dead land, neither country nor city.... That was the way to the ocean we always took summer evenings—through silent streets of old broken houses whose smoky red Victorian fronts looked as if the paint had clotted like blood and had then been mixed with soot—past infinite weedy lots...."

For Ritty Feynman the beach was best of all—the long southern strand stretching almost unbroken to the far east end of Long Island, framed by its boardwalk and summer hotels, cottages and thousands of private lockers. Far Rockaway was a summer resort with beach clubs for people from the city: the Ostend Baths, Roche's (for a long time Richard thought this was named after the insect), the Arnold. There were wooden pavilions and changing rooms for rent by the season, with shiny locks and keys. For the local children, though, the beach served its purpose the year round. They splashed in the light surf, attenuated by a long breakwater pale beneath the waves. At the height of the summer's crowds the pink and green of bathing suits dotted the sand like gumdrops. It was his favorite place. He usually rode his bicycle the four thousand feet from his house (a distance that expanded in his later memory to two miles). He went with friends or alone. The sky was larger there than anywhere else in the city's confines; the ocean tempted his imagination as it does any child's. All those waves, all that space, the boats crawling like apparitions along the horizon toward New York Harbor, Europe and Africa lying far beyond, at the end of a long uninterrupted vector curving downward below the sky. It sometimes seemed that the things near the sea were the only things that were any good.

The dome of the sky stretched upward. The arcs of the sun and moon crossed directly ahead, rising and falling with the season. He could splash his heels in the surf and recognize a line that formed the tripartite boundary between earth, sea, and air. At night he would take his flashlight. For teenagers the beach was a site for social mixing between boys and girls; he did his best, though he sometimes felt gawky. He often swam. When he was forty-three, setting out nearly everything he knew about physics in the historic two-year undergraduate course that became The Feynman Lectures on Physics, he stood before a hall of freshmen and tried to place them mentally at the beach. "If we stand on the shore and look at the sea," he said, "we see the water, the waves breaking, the foam, the sloshing motion of the water, the sound, the air, the winds and the clouds, the sun and the blue sky, and light; there is sand and there are rocks of various hardness and permanence, color and texture. There are animals and seaweed, hunger and disease, and the observer on the beach; there may even be happiness and thought." Nature was elemental there, though for Feynman elemental did not mean simple or austere. The questions he considered within the physicist's purview—the fundamental questions—arose on the beach. "Is the sand other than the rocks? That is, is the sand perhaps nothing but a great number of very tiny stones? Is the moon a great rock? If we understood rocks, would we also understand the sand and the moon? Is the wind a sloshing of the air analogous to the sloshing motion of the water in the sea?"

The great European migration to America was ending. For the Jews of Russia, Eastern Europe, and Germany, for the Irish and the Italians, the first-hand and first-generation memories would now recede. The outer neighborhoods of New York flourished in the generations before World War II and then began to wane. In Far Rockaway not much changed visibly in the sixty-nine years of Feynman's lifetime. When Feynman returned on a visit with his children a few years before his death, everything seemed shrunken and forlorn, the fields and vacant lots were gone, but it was the same beach with its boardwalk, the same high school, the same house he had wired for radio broadcasts—the house now divided, to accommodate a tenant, and not nearly so spacious as in memory. He did not ring the bell. The village's main street, Central Avenue, seemed shabby and narrow. The population had become largely Orthodox Jewish, and Feynman was vaguely disturbed to see so many yarmulkes, or, as he actually said, "those little hats that they wear"—meaning: I don't care what things are called. And casually repudiating the culture that hung as thick in the air of his childhood as the smoke of the city or the salt of the ocean.

The Judaism of Far Rockaway took in a liberal range of styles of belief, almost broad enough to encompass atheists like Richard's father, Melville. It was a mostly Reform Judaism, letting go the absolutist and fundamental traditions for the sake of a gentle, ethical humanism, well suited for fresh Americans pinning their hopes on children who might make their way into the mainstream of the New World. Some households barely honored the Sabbath. In some, like Feynman's, Yiddish would have been a foreign language. The Feynmans belonged to the neighborhood temple. Richard went to Sunday school for a while and belonged to a Shaaray Tefila youth group that organized after-school activities. Religion remained part of the village's ethical core. Families like the Feynmans, in neighborhoods all around greater New York City, produced in the first half of the twentieth century an outpouring of men and women who became successful in many fields, but especially science. These hundred-odd square miles of the planet's surface were disproportionately fertile in the spawning of Nobel laureates. Many families, as Jews, were embedded in a culture that prized learning and discourse; immigrants and the children of immigrants worked to fulfill themselves through their own children, who had to be sharply conscious of their parents' hopes and sacrifices. They shared a sense that science, as a profession, rewarded merit. In fact, the best colleges and universities continued to raise barriers against Jewish applicants, and their science faculties remained determinedly Protestant, until after World War II. Science nevertheless offered the appearance of a level landscape, where the rules seemed mathematical and clear, free from the hidden variables of taste and class.

As a town Far Rockaway had a center that even Cedarhurst lacked. When Richard's mother, Lucille, walking down to Central Avenue, headed for stores like Nebenzahl's and Stark's, she appreciated the centralization. She knew her children's teachers personally, helped get the school lunchroom painted, and joined her neighbors in collecting the set of red glassware given out as a promotion by a local movie theater. This village looked inward as carefully as the shtetl that remained in some memories. There was a consistency of belief and behavior. To be honest, to be principled, to study, to save money against hard times—the rules were not so much taught as assumed. Everyone worked hard. There was no sense of poverty—certainly not in Feynman's family, though later he realized that two families had shared one house because neither could get by alone. Nor in his friend Leonard Mautner's, even after the father had died and an older brother was holding the family together by selling eggs and butter from house to house. "That was the way the world was," Feynman said long afterward. "But now I realize that everybody was struggling like mad. Everybody was struggling and it didn't seem like a struggle." For children, life in such neighborhoods brought a rare childhood combination of freedom and moral rigor. It seemed to Feynman that morality was made easy. He was allowed to surrender to a natural inclination to be honest. It was the downhill course.


Excerpted from Genius by James Gleick. Copyright © 1992 James Gleick. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Born in New York City in 1954, James Gleick is one of the nation’s preeminent science writers. Upon graduating from Harvard in 1976, he founded Metropolis, a weekly Minneapolis newspaper, and spent the next decade working at the New York Times. Gleick’s prominent works include Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, Isaac Newton, and Chaos: Making a New Science, all of which were shortlisted for the Pulitzer Prize. His latest book, The Information: A History, a Theory, a Flood,was published in March 2011. He lives and works in New York.

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Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 16 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
I have read other books by this author. He describes his subjects with the utmost scrutiny. The other well known books about Dr. Feyman give him a superfical look of a very clever man. He was. They did not share his agonies, frustrations that were everlasting and devastating to most people. It might split many other people in pain. Looking at his career, successes, acknowledgements, and his God given abilities. Gleich helped me put Dr. Feyman's story in order to give him a human image which made me look at him with all the more admiration.
mybabyboylucas More than 1 year ago
I read Gleick's book on Isaac Newton several times and felt compelled to read this as well. For some reason I've been hearing more and more about Feynman lately and wanted to learn about him in depth. Gleick's book is absolutely fascinating, giving incredible detail about everything from his youth to women to relationships with other famous scientists of the day. The only reason I didn't give it 5 points is some of the science details were a bit overwhelming for my non-genius brain. Incredible man! A real gift to the world! Plan to read Chaos next!
Guest More than 1 year ago
Genius is about Richard Feynman, an extraordinary physicist, and a very eccentric person. It documents his life, from birth to death and everywhere in between. It begins with his early childhood, his inspirations, and his discovery of physics. It details his undergraduate studies and his increased interest in quantum physics. It describes his journey through Princeton and Los Alamos as well as his Nobel Prize winning theory. Finally, the biography documents his works on the challenger disaster as well as his death. The author had good reason to write this biography. Richard Feynman was a very interesting and eccentric character. The author, in my opinion, might have been trying to show that even if you go against the flow, you might very well be right. Feynman developed the quantum theory of electronics despite the beliefs of the time which were contrary to his theory. It shows how one should pursue what one feels to be right in the face of adversity. Furthermore, Feynman played an integral part in many of the important scientific events of the mid 20th century and the author felt that he needed to be appreciated. As such, I recommend this book to anyone who wishes to read about a very interesting man who changed the course of history in some cases. If you are seeking to study quantum physics, this book contains many of the details necessary to understand Feynman¿s thoughts as well. All in all, it is quite a good read.
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Bistro_McLeod More than 1 year ago
Terrific book! I generally do not care for books written about Feynman, preferring books written BY Feynman. But, Gleick's book is very much an exception to that 'rule'. If you do not already understand the genuine genius of Richard Feynman -- do yourself a great favor and read this book!
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vanlyle More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed reading about Richard Feynman and his life as well as the culture of physics research during his time.  The physics was a  bit boring but understandable to me.  I also enjoyed reading about other physicists and it gave me a framework to use to look up their  accomplishments as well.  I did, however, find myself counting the pages until the end.  It felt like a long read.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
Gleick is an outstanding writer, and this is an exceptional book. However, if you are looking for an indepth/dumbed down description of the science of Feynman, with charts and lots of analogies (as you would find in his other work 'Chaos'), then this book will disapoint.