eems Enlightened, penetrating and capacious minds with imagination perpetually attempting to soar and apt to deviate into the mazes of error - we've often heard and associated such qualities with a small fraction of people around us though often in hindsight. We've often labeled them as a Genius. For centuries, men have looked in and out to find the Philosopher's Stone that creates such men so that one may then set up a foundry of geniuses. Alas! no one has been able to figure it out. And yet, we've continued to brand people - often in individual capacity - as geniuses.

Genius - Richard Feynman and Modern Physics

James Gleick

ISBN: 978-0-349-10532-1

Image credits and link

Enlightened, penetrating and capacious minds with imagination perpetually attempting to soar and apt to deviate into the mazes of error - we've often heard and associated such qualities with a small fraction of people around us though often in hindsight. We've often labeled them as a Genius. For centuries, men have looked in and out to find the Philosopher's Stone that creates such men so that one may then set up a foundry of geniuses. Alas! no one has been able to figure it out. And yet, we've continued to brand people - often in individual capacity - as geniuses.

Amid such speculative dissonances, almost everyone who came in contact with Richard Feynman - the theoretical physicist and also a Nobel laureate - concurs that the way his mind worked was unfathomable. James Gleick's "Genius - Richard Feynman and modern physics" is a biographical account of Richard Feynman and how his contributions helped develop modern physics. Mostly, it is about the physicist Feynman; but in parts, it is also about the other side of Feynman where he is not a physicist. The mathematician Mark Kac put him in a different league of Geniuses by making a distinction.

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. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with magicians... Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. They seldom, if ever, have students they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician's mind works. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.

Coming from his contemporary, the statement sometimes comes off as a justification of accepting Richard's hesitation to take graduate students under his wing - a justification to excuse the eccentricities of a select few as long as such an allowance can be made. But, the book also sets the pretext of his capacity for insight early on. Back in the MIT, he was asked to join the mathematics team of three entrants for the nation's most difficult and prestigious mathematics contest, the Putnam competition...The problems were intricate exercises in calculus and algebraic manipulation; no one was expected to complete them all satisfactorily in the allotted time...One of Feynman's fraternity brothers was surprised to see him return home while the examination was still going on. Feynman learned later that the scorers had been astounded by the gap between his result and the next four.
From his beginnings in Far Rockaway to his final days in California, the book traces his lifetime arc under his academic and professional life - MIT, Princeton, Los Alamos, Cornell, Caltech. A lanky, curious, and shy boy from Far Rockaway enters MIT as a young undergraduate student and sets his eyes on the then bleeding edge of science - nuclear physics - to make a mark. Along with a like-minded friend in Welton, he starts preparing his solid groundwork for a career in physics. Then, at Princeton, he gets to learn as a teaching assistant from and under John Archibald Wheeler, described as a compact, gray-eyed, twenty-eight-year-old assistant professor who was known to fastidiously pull out a pocket watch when he began a session with a student (conveying a message: the professor will spare just so much time...). Feynman's contrarian nature shines forth when he pulls out a dollar pocket watch of his own and set it down facing Wheeler's on their second meeting. (There was a pause, then both men laughed.) Along with it also comes his way of dealing with his weaknesses and carving out a social image to stand out despite them. As Mc Dougall described for Joey Vigil, he "couldn’t outmuscle the meat slabs on the other side of the line, so he outscienced them; he studied the tricks of leverage, propulsion, and timing, figuring out ways to position his feet so he popped up from a crouch like a spring-loaded anvil." It is then a journey starting in the classical electrodynamics and diving into quantum electrodynamics with very simple models of analysis, of electrons traveling backward in time or being affected by their own effects, quarks and strange particles and further. It involves collaboration with and working under big guns of theoretical physics like Bohr, Fermi, Dirac, Oppenheimer, Bethe and building a reputation at the Atomic Bomb project, not just as a bright physicist, but as an efficient and dedicated manager, planner, and executioner too. It involves face-off situations with some of the same giants at the expense of being too reckless and unconventional, and many wins like 'Nolo contendere' from Oppenheimer (to Dyson). But something that becomes evident from early on is his capacity to treat physics as a whole and not shunning one part of it over any other. He consumed it all as a discovery of how nature works (or as some have described him, an omnivore). He had an almost physical way of solving problems - of visualizing them even if they were as abstract or far removed from the reality-as-we-know-it as quantum physics. Paul Olum suspected that when Feynman wanted to know what an electron would do under given circumstances he merely asked himself, "If I were an electron, what would I do?". Another large facet that shines through is his refusal to conform.

A large part of the book is about the work Feynman and his contemporaries did. Though Feynman had the habit of always starting from the very basics and building things ground up, the book also presents the things he drew parallel to, things that he dismantled or what he simplified. Though starting from the basics might seem very uncollaborative, but that is how he worked.

If the most distinguished physicists and mathematicians believe in the genius as magician, it is partly for psychological protection. A merely excellent scientist could suffer an unpleasant shock when he discussed his work with Feynman. It happened again and again: physicists would wait for an opportunity to get Feynman's judgment of a result on which they had staked weeks or months of their career. Typically Feynman would refuse to allow them to give a full explanation. He said it spoiled his fun. He would let them describe just the outline of the problem before he would jump up and say, "Oh, I know that..." and scrawl on the blackboard not his visitor's result, A, but a harder, more general theorem, X. So A (about to be mailed, perhaps, to the Physical Review) was merely a special case. This could cause pain.

The case of Slotnick and Case is described in this vein:

Feynman had not studied meson theories, but he scrambled for a briefing and went back to his hotel to begin calculating. No, the two couplings were not the same. The next morning he buttonholed Slotnick to check his answer. Slotnick was nonplussed. He had just spent six intensive months on this calculation; what was Feynman talking about? Feynman took out a piece of paper with a formula written on it... He had completed in hours a superior version of a calculation on which another physicist had staked a major piece of his career. He knew he now had to publish...

For some, even brief contact with Feynman changed their course.

Encounters with Feynman left marks on a series of young physicists and mathematicians, in a glare of bright light, out-thought for the first time in their lives. They found different ways of adapting to this new circumstance. Some subordinated their own abilities to his and accepted his occasional bantering abuse in exchange for the surprising pleasure that came with his praise. Some found their self-image enough changed that they abandoned physics altogether. Olum himself eventually returned to mathematics, where he was more comfortable.

Sometimes it was not clear whether Feynman's lightning answers came from instantaneous calculations or from a storehouse of previously worked-out - and unpublished - knowledge...A great physicist who accumulated knowledge without taking the trouble to publish could be a genuine danger to his colleagues. At best it was unnerving to learn that one's potentially career-advancing discovery had been, to Feynman, below the threshold of publishability... It was said of Lars Onsager, for example, that a visitor would ask him about a new result; sitting in his office chair he would say, I believe that it is correct; then he would bend forward diffidently to open a file drawer, glance sidelong at a long-buried page of notes, and say, Yes, I thought so; that is correct. This was not always precisely what the visitor had hoped to hear.

The author tries his best not to boggle the reader with the strangeness of the quantum particles and breaks it down into something accessible, understandable phenomenon, devoid of mathematical expressions or rigor while not being too inaccurate. How much Gleick succeeds is a subjective choice (for me, a lot of it was clear, some vaguely clear, and a lot of it flew past without much hint). But he tries to balance the text while keeping it fairly objective. He observes carefully the culture of the era, its shifting dynamics and with it, the gradients of shifting attitudes with which the society (Feynman included) dealt with. From Feynman's growing years in Far Rockaway, Gleick notes that

immigrants and the children of immigrants worked to fulfil themselves through their own children, who had to be sharply conscious of their parents' hopes and sacrifices...There was a consistency of belief and behaviour. To be honest, to be principled, to study, to save money against hard times - the rules were not so much taught as assumed... 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...Everyone worked hard...For children, life in such neighbourhoods brought a rare childhood combination of freedom and moral rigor.

The words 'nerd' and 'wonk' did not appear in the collegiate vocabulary of MIT in the thirties, and yet, the tides were starting to turn.

a penholder worn in the shirt pocket represented no particular gaucherie; a boy could not become a figure of fun merely by studying. This was fortunate for Feynman and others like him, socially inept, atheletically feeble, miserable in any but a science course, risking laughter every time he pronounced an unfamiliar name, so worried about the other sex that he trembled when he had to take the mail out past girls sitting on the stoop. America's future scientists and engineers, many of them rising from the working class, valued studiousness without question...Even so, Phi Beta Delta perceived a problem. There did seem to be a connection between hard studying and failure to dance. The fraternity made a cooperative project of enlivening the potential dull boys. Attendance at the dances became mandatory for everyone in Phi Delta Beta. For those who could not find dates, the older boys arranged dates. In return, stronger boys tutored the weak.

With the war work looming, women found way into the industry occupations and yet, the pay divide existed like a norm.

Even before the IBM machines arrived Feynman and Metropolis set up an array of people - mostly wives of scientists, working at three-eights salary - who individually handled pieces of complex equations, one cubing a number and passing it on, another performing a subtraction, and so on. It was mass production married to numerical calculation. The banks of women weilding Marchants simulated the internal workings of a computer...

Then, by the turn of the decade,

Women were expected to contend in the work force - another trend accelerated by the war - but they also stood in the centerpiece of a cozy domestic version of family life. The professions, and particularly the sciences, remained in the rear guard. The new Physics Today summed up the difficulties from the sober perspective of someone who has spent more than a decade teaching physics to undergraduates at Bryn Mawr, where a local ditty asked,

Tell me what it is like to be teaching these girls?

Do you find that they have any brains?

Do they take themselves seriously (may I ask) or do you?

The editors were determined to keep the tone lighthearted. The author argued, not without sympathy, that the single most grevious obstacle to the success of women as physicists was their own "tendency to defer to the superior male". Meanwhile employers continued to assume that women's eventual priority would be marriage and children. In Phyiscal Review women almost never appeared as authors.

In their wholly male world, physicists were even less likely than other American men to look for intellectual partnership in their sexual relationship. Some did, nevertheless. In the European tradition, where the professoriat implied a certain social class and cultural grounding, wives had tended to share their husbands' class and culture...In the American social stew, where science had become an upward pathway for children of the immigrant poor, whatever husbands and wives might be assumed to share, it was not necessarily a background in the academy. Feynman, alone anyway in the distant reaches of much of his work, seemed to date only women of obvious beauty, often blondes, sometimes heavily made-up and provocatively dressed - or so it seemed to some of the women he did not date...

Then of 1970s,

Despite the women's movement that emerged in the sixties, science remained forbiddingly male in its rhetoric and its demographies. Barely 2 percent of American graduate degrees in physics went to women. Caltech did not hire its first female faculty member until 1969, and she did not receive tenure until she forced the issue in court in 1976. (Feynman, to the surprise and displeasure of some of his humanities colleagues, had taken her side; he had spent many pleasant hours in her office reading aloud such poems as Theodore Roethke's "I knew a Woman": "I measure time by how a body sways..." Like most men in physics, Feynman had known a few women as professional colleagues and believed that he had treated them, individually, as equals. They tended to agree. What more, he wondered, could anyone ask?

The story of anyone's life when narrated always seems to make story-line sense. Mostly because we rationalize and connect the dots in a particular manner (which is a narrative bias which easily overlooks or precludes the desire to find an anti-evidence). Only a 'now' journal would reveal the confusion, the direction-lessness that we sometimes experience (or perhaps, frequently experience) before it makes sense to us in retrospect. Thankfully, Gleick's biography does try to put them in chronological order. Feynman's story, as being narrated by Glieck seems to follow a gripping thrall of an action-packed thriller. The theory and the experiments, the audaciousness and the 'larger than life' or the 'genius' image that Glieck wants to project for Feynman makes one think that it is all doable and not-doable at the same time. Not just Feynman, but Bethe and Schwinger too, among others.

And yet, the 'spells of excessive rationality', personal struggles, his flings and wild thirties, trials and tribulations are attended to with the same objective and chronological pace. It is possible that their placement has the nuance of making them fit in the context, sometimes evoking sympathy for the forlorn protagonist, but I (hope and) trust that Gleick has upheld the virtues of scientific reporting even in the narrative. As a contrarian but still fairly an upright man, "every so often Feynman would feel the urge to bring a measure of rationality to his relations with women. He loved to work out the rules, to find the systems. He tired of the susurrus of promises, flattery, cajoling. He hated having to apologize. He turned Arline's favorite principle to a new purpose:"

"It seems to me that you go to lots of trouble to be sure the girl doesn't think ill of you," he wrote a note to himself after one emotionally messy encounter:

WHAT DO YOU CARE WHAT SHE THINKS? It is all right to care whether you hurt her or not - just do your best, (if you insist) on trying not to - then if the fact is that you are O.K., don't bother to try to argue otherwise or try to get her to tell you you are wonderful... Further, if you are selfish & look only to your physical pleasure - don't try to convince yourself otherwise - or rather - don't try to explain it to her or convince her otherwise.

For his exploits, he also paid - sometimes in warnings from the women he transgressed (or their husbands), sometimes in monetary terms.

You were too much of the "playboy". But I was both embarassed & intrigued by the effects that your girl friends had on you when they called you in my presence. Sometimes you left the phone, shaking & foaming at the mouth... I recognized a baseness in you and was frightened that you took my love and affection for you cheaply, and so I wanted to compensate against that horrible feeling.

She knew too much about the women he had been seeing since his divorce. She named four of them and described an anonymous note that had come addressed to "Occupant":

Dirty Dick, Filthy Fucking Feynman dates you. He will never marry you. Tell him he has made you pregnant. You'll make a quick $300-$500.

For someone like me who has come to like Feynman beyond regular adulation, the book serves as a wonderful and insightful opportunity to experience Feynman beyond his stories, folklore, and letters. It puts the human Feynman into the almost mythical aura of a person that Feynman had started to become for me - consequently making him more possible and ever more endearing. Some parts, like Feynman avoiding tiring his brain by ritualizing certain things before Gweneth happened to him raise questions that don't really need an answer but makes one circumspect of the shifting narrative of life. What version of Feynman do we know of? Is that sufficient? He pointed out this technique of avoiding brain fatigue in 'Surely, You're joking' where he decided that he'd order only one particular meal in the restaurant to avoid having to decide every time. For me, this has worked wonderfully in my office canteen where I don't even have to look into the dessert because I want to avoid it or to pass vegetables for lunch and pulses for dinner to mitigate the monotony of eating the same things too frequently. It isn't something I learned from him but was an obvious answer to the frustration of having to choose too frequently (too many choices can kill a man), but learning that I'm not alone gave impetus to it. Or, while managing the wardrobe, I don't have to decide too often about what to wear. We don't know if he continued those antics after she came to his life. She did color his wardrobe but did he fall back to his antics, there is no record in the book.

What we've known from folklore is that Feynman was a great teacher and that most of his letters and window into the personal (and love) life ended with Arlene's demise leaving with us some romantic attitude of how one can love deeply. This book made me see this disparity. We know little of the Feynman after Arlene. The book only makes a passing reference to his journey in art as Ofey, his portraits and escapades at bars and gamble houses. Yet, the book opens other windows to places where a wayward Feynman seduced wives of young graduate friends, or a cognitively engrossed Feynman shouted at students, journalists, or his second wife who accused him of abuse when he was disturbed while working with physics problems and also allegedly claimed to the FBI that he was a communist or a pro-communist. The author is keenly aware of the precipitous terrain that the social landscape has been, particularly in relation to women, and how Feynman has been in the center of many small and large protests. He does not deny, not justify, but puts things in perspective, and sometimes in contrast too. While Feynman's curiosity to know what makes nature tick knew no bounds, we get to see it brought out in sometimes delightful and sometimes distasteful overtures. Perhaps Gell-man understood it best or spoke the ineffable observation - "He surrounded himself with a cloud of myth, and he spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about which he had to come out, if possible, looking smarter than anyone else." Feynman understood the craft of storytelling just like he tried to understand nature (omnivorously) and used it to serve himself.

The book is a wonderful window and I'd recommend it to anyone who wants to know more of Feynman, but only after they've experienced him first hand in his narrations or letters, and on the videos available online. It's a 438-pages long book (excluding notes and bibliography) and I've excerpted select parts of it in a thread of tweets (hoping it is all right) as ramblings. What Olum wrote of Feynman (that he felt this loss only for his wife and Feynman) is something that - I suspect - many of us (myself included) feel. It is almost a romantic kind of feeling. Love? Perhaps.

P.S.: While I was towards the end of writing this, a few of my people who have known my affection for Feynman pointed me towards this outburst by Leila McNeill. Though I do not agree to the manner in which she has dealt with the core issue she has highlighted (and I apparently made a fool out of myself when she responded to a reply of mine to one of the persons who'd suggested the read) and would rather prefer a neutral discussion like this at Galileo's Pendulum and this post by Jessamyn Fairfield which talk about pretty much the same things, one much before the #MeToo rhetoric and the other post that. Here is one that explicitly discusses this topic in the sciences, the obstacles and we are or might tackle the issues. And for completeness sake, Walter Lewin - a very popular and considered to be in the leagues of the best Physics teachers was dismissed under charges of sexual harassment (which were later proved) in an online MOOC.