But I write for myself, for my own pleasure. And I want to be left alone to do it. - J.D. Salinger ^(;,;)^
I've been circling this book, 'The Feynman Lectures on Physics', and Gleck's 'Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman' for awhile. This one seemed the most fun and easiest place to start. I was driving from Taos/Santa Fe back to Phoenix last week and as I drove past Los Alamos, it was just the particle collision in my brain I needed to start on Feynman.
Often, memoirs are hard to read because you know a bunch of it is façade. A person is showing you a part of them for a purpose. They want to be viewed as smart, important, funny, etc. They carefully guide you through a Potemkin village of their life. Richard Feynman's memoir is different. Not that I don't think Feynman had an ego. He might have even had an agenda with the book. But, for the most part, he seemed much more interested in the stories he wanted to tell, rather than on how they would make him look. He wasn't all that worried about how he looked so much. His entire life was built around doing what he wanted, exploring what he found interesting, violating taboos, beating his own drums and cutting his own path.
He was a Nobel-prize winning polymath physicist whose other talents included playing drums, teaching, drawing naked girls, picking locks, making atomic bombs, practical jokes, and telling stories. He wasn't interested in the usual trappings of success. Many of those things annoyed him. He was curious. He was a risk-taker. He was a genius.
I gave it three stars last night (DNA night), but that just didn't seem right. The structure wasn't stable, and I felt this scientific memoir probably deserved four stars (one for A, one for T, one for G, one for C; also one for Watson, one for Crick, one for Wilkins, and yes one for Franklin).
Short, interesting, personal and important but also sexist, biased, & according to Crick "a violation of friendship". Watson's attitudes towards Rosalind Franklin today seem so maligned that Watson eventually had to clarify that these were his attitudes and views at the time of the discovery and not when he wrote the book. He added an epilogue that softened his views and gave Franklin more credit.
Despite, this major and very real issue, the book (along with Watson, Crick & Wilkins contributions) cannot be undersold. The discovery of DNA's structure changed biology and the book catapulted Watson & Crick into that pantheon of fame that is seldom reached by even Nobel-level scientists.
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself and you are the easiest person to fool."
- Richard Feynman
"Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it."
- Richard Feynman
Feynman was lucky in three ways. First, the guy was born with a brain that somehow gave him access to problems with a speed and a dexterity that seemed magical to his peers, and his peers are people that already often stretched the capacity for knowledge and intelligence. Second, Feynman was lucky to be born at the right time. He came into his abilities at the right moment for Physics. He was there when physicists (post Einstein's relativity) seemed to grab a larger piece of global attention. Third, Feynman was lucky to have participated in WWII's war of the magicians (Los Alamos and the Atomic Bomb). All of these things combined with Feynman's iconoclastic nature, his perseverance and single-mindedness, his capacity to get to the root of problems, put Feynman second to Einstein in 20th century minds.
The book itself is a very good example of scientific biography. Gleick doesn't stray, however, too far from the anecdotal autobiography of Feynman in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. Gleick elaborates, provides more detail, adds interesting vignettes on other Physicists that fell into Feynman's orbit (Wilson, Oppenheimer, Dyson, Dirac, Bohr, Schwinger, Gell-Mann, etc). Those diversions and Gleick's occasional riffs on the idea of genius keep this from being just an average scientific biography. It also was a bit stronger and more robust than Gleick's earlier work: Chaos: Making a New Science.
All that said, it still wasn't an AMAZING biography. I appreciated the time spent on the details. The accuracy and notes associated with this book, but a lot of the magic of the book existed in Feynman himself and not in the telling of it.