Book report on “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick”
Western Washington University
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was a unique, flamboyant individual who made incredible contributions to the field of theoretical physics over the course of his lifetime. Feynman worked on the atomic bomb project, won a Nobel Prize, and made multiple contributions to the field of theoretical quantum physics. Many of the modern ways theoretical physicists conceptualize particle and wave interactions is founded on Feynman’s work. Feynman is also credited as a founder of modern nanotechnology. However, as a person, Feynman was more than the sum of his contributions; he was a unique and brilliant individual who insisted on taking his own path in life, frequently shunning social and scientific norms in the process.
Throughout his childhood, Feynman had a positive, healthy relationship with his mother and father. Having predicted his son (if it were a son) would be a scientist before birth, Feynman’s father constantly encouraged him to question how things work, and to ask why things are the way they are. Feynman’s mother was encouraging and accepting of his curiosity even when it endangered or disrupted their household. For instance, when his mother was asked by her friends how she could stand the noise and occasional smoke (and trash-can fires from electrochemical experiments gone awry) she simply replied, “It’s worth it.” In this way, Feynman’s parents played a key role in shaping their son’s life trajectory and personality; his parents’ high expectations, encouragement, tolerance of his inquisitive nature, and lack of insistence that their son follow strict social protocol resulted in Feynman developing a positive, unique sense of self. By encouraging his cognitive strengths (and not overly criticizing any social weaknesses), I believe Feynman’s parents played a large role in cultivating his ability to freely investigate the nature of the universe from his own, personal viewpoint, devoid of too many “shoulds” and “musts.”
This kind of accepting, encouraging mentality was pervasive in the community in which Feynman was raised; Feynman grew up in a Jewish community of relatively poor immigrants. During the 20’s and early 30’s when Feynman was growing up, science was viewed as a respectable profession, largely devoid of anti-Semitism, and for his parents the sciences seemed like an open door towards a better life for their children. In addition, the Jewish community encouraged children to pursue respectable professions such as science; the self-esteem of parents often revolved around bragging rights to their sons’ and daughters’ successes. This pride in accomplishment fostered a community where competition amongst families and siblings was encouraged, yet the competition remained friendly and took place within a supportive environment. The homogeneity and cohesiveness of the community provided Feynman with a safe environment in which he could explore his environment and his scientific interests, freely. In summary, the Jewish community, lower socio-economic status (with hope for the future), combined with a safe environment facilitated Feynman’s parents’ accepting and encouraging behavior.
From a very early age, Feynman took pride in his unique problem solving methods. For instance, as a child, Feynman took an interest in the inner workings of radios. During his teen years, he billed himself as the kid who could “fix your radio by thinking.” Using logic and his understanding of physics and electronics, he quickly identified the source of the radio malfunction. As a child and continuing throughout his life, Feynman stubbornly rejected explanations for physical phenomena until he was able to conceptualize both the problem and an approximate solution in his own mental space. As early as grade school, this personal (and often novel) approach towards solving problems was apparent; in math, he broke apart complex equations into simpler components so that he was able to fully visualize the problem from multiple angles at once. This ability to conceptualize complex problems from multiple, simultaneous angles was arguably his biggest mental asset throughout his life; many of his finest accomplishments in theoretical physics stemmed from taking a classic problem and approaching it from a novel viewpoint. From an observer’s perspective, Feynman appeared to solve problems through pure intuition. Personally, I believe Feynman’s apparent intuition was comprised of a unique and flexible mental-visual workspace in which he could weave ideas together with great ease. Although Feynman may have had a genetic predisposition towards such a unique, free-wheeling workspace, I believe his parents, schooling, and self-selected extracurricular participation (i.e. math club) played a role in encouraging its development.
Although he was adept at conceptualizing complex problems, Feynman was less skilled at understanding social cues and protocol. Possibly because of this apparent deficit, he worried greatly about social interaction as a child and throughout his early adult life. However, through observation and intelligence, he overcame this deficit by developing sets of complex social rules that allowed him to successfully interact with, and often manipulate, others. I believe Feynman might have been very mildly autistic; social rules did not come naturally, and when he was observant enough to learn an accepted protocol, he often rejected it. Although he greatly cared what people thought about him (his first wife often teased him about this), he took great care to be unique and different from his peers and friends.
Feynman first met Arline Greenbaum during childhood while down at the beach near his house. Feynman enrolled in social clubs and art classes in order to spend time with her. He and Arline began seriously dating later in high school, and when Feynman went to MIT, she visited him regularly as his date for dances and other social get-togethers. Feynman’s relationship with Arline was described as very playful, and Feynman displayed fun, spunky, playful attributes during this period of his life. However, Arline was constantly ill, and after many incorrect diagnoses, she was finally diagnosed with Tuberculosis. Feynman and Arline married before Feynman graduated college, after she was diagnosed; they both knew Arline would not live a long life. This was met with much disapproval from Feynman’s family and colleagues. His marriage and dedication towards tending for Arline caused an uncomfortable rift to form between Feynman and his mother, which was not repaired for many years.
While Feynman worked on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, Arline lived in a nearby Albuquerque hospital. On weekends they visited each other, and they frequently sent love notes back and forth. In 1945 before the atomic bomb project was finished, Arline died, and Feynman was thoroughly crushed. The death of Arline caused a deep depression and brought about many personality changes in Feynman. After Arline’s death Feynman became more calloused and serious. Reading his biography, I got the sense that it took Feynman almost fifteen years to fully recover from Arline’s death.
Feynman took pride in being different, often to the point where he stubbornly shunned social and scientific protocols. The way Feynman’s child-like personality was described gave me the impression that he viewed almost everything in life as a game, with sets of rules that could be learned. Feynman was adept at learning rules, and once he had learned the rules in any area (be it dating, seducing women, national security regarding the atom bomb, or academia), the rules became something to be taken advantage of for his amusement and personal benefit. For instance, Feynman and his first wife Arline sent letters back to each other while Feynman was working on the atomic bomb. They both knew the letters were being read, so Feynman would point out obscure mathematical facts, such as “how the decimal expansion of 1/243 repeats itself: .004 115 226 337 448 (p186)” in order to frustrate the officials who screened the letters for secret code. Arline played along as well; she sent him a letter as a jigsaw puzzle at one point. Later, when living in Brazil, Feynman developed a set of rules, protocols, and prescribed behavior to successfully seduce women. In addition to shunning social protocol, Feynman made it a goal to stay naïve in the world of academia; Feynman claimed that staying ignorant of the current physics literature kept his conceptualizations of physics flexible and personal.
After graduating from MIT, Feynman went to Princeton to get his Ph.D. When the US entered the war, Feynman chose a patriotic job and began work on the Manhattan project. His time working at Los Alamos on the atomic bomb allowed close contact with the finest mathematicians and physicists in the world, and it also allowed Feynman to further prove himself as a genius in the area of theoretical and practical physics. I believe Feynman thrived in this environment; he had a solid relationship with his wife and he was mentally stimulated.
After the Manhattan project, Feynman took a job as a professor at Cornell. In addition to losing Arline, Feynman was still very much at odds with his mother about marrying an ill, non-Jewish woman. This meant that on top of his recent loss, he had little family support. After four years at Cornell, Feynman had only lived in faculty guest houses and student residences; he had never settled into any house or apartment. He predicted nuclear war in the upcoming years, and he constantly sank into depression. Although he was performing his job well and making huge advances in the area of theoretical physics, happiness eluded him. To escape it all, he took a job at the up-and-coming school, Caltech. He was offered an immediate sabbatical year as part of his terms of employment, and he went to Rio, South America to teach for a year.
Without a solid relationship, Feynman struggled, personally. In addition, he took great personal risks, pursuing women in ways that violated all proper rules. This became especially pronounced during his time in Rio; he dated undergraduates, hired prostitutes, and slept with wives of several friends. Since Arline’s death, Feynman’s philosophy of love had changed into an “all’s fair” mentality. When he returned from Brazil, he surprised everybody by immediately marrying Mary Bell, a woman he had met at Cornell and with whom he had remained in correspondence while overseas. Their marriage was a disaster on all accounts and ended four years later.
His feelings about love, and life in general, appeared to shift while at a Rochester conference, where he met Gweneth Howarth, an English woman who was working as a nanny. Something clicked between the two of them, and after a long correspondence and several visits, Gweneth agreed to come live with Feynman as his “maid.” Their relationship grew quickly and they married in 1960. They had two children together, Carl and Michelle. After marrying Gweneth, I got the impression that Feynman settled down into a fairly stable, happy mid-life, working at Caltech. Although he was constantly restless and branching out into new areas with his work, he enjoyed spending time with his family and raised two healthy children. Other than embarrassing his children with his eccentric and boisterous personality, Feynman was described as a wonderful and caring father. Although Feynman is best known for his work in physics, he seemed happiest when he was able to love and care for others; the emotional landscape of his life coincided more with positive family relationships than with anything related to work. In fact, Feynman’s life foundation seemed to be built upon family and relationships; if his first wife hadn’t died, Feynman might have had a much happier, even more productive life.
In 1965, Feynman and two colleagues won the Nobel Prize for their “fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics with deep ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles (p378).” After winning the Nobel Prize, Feynman made it a goal of his to remain unchanged by fame. He refused honorary degrees, turned down administrative jobs, and refused to edit articles for prestigious journals. Although he disappointed many peers, he remained successful in continuing his work, mostly undeterred by the hassle of being famous.
As a child, Feynman would try to watch his thoughts as he fell asleep. As he grew older, he returned to his childhood interest in dream states, experimenting with sensory deprivation, and trying marijuana and LSD. In 1977 Feynman became ill and passed out on a trip to the Swiss Alps. The next year the doctors found a huge tumor in his abdomen, and he was diagnosed with abdominal cancer. He knew he would likely be dead within five years, so even after a successful operation, death was not far from his thoughts.
During his later years Feynman spent time at the Esalen Institute in Big Sur, California, which he described as a hotbed of antiscience. During his stays there, Feynman listened to Ram Das, soaked in hot tubs, flirted with nude young women, learned to give massages, and practiced out of body experiences. Although he didn’t buy into the whole mystical spiel, Feynman was happy to “imagine his ego floating here or there, outside himself, outside the room, outside the sixty-five-year-old body that was failing him so grievously (p407).” Even though he was a physicist, Feynman’s enjoyment of antiscience fit his personality; his genius had stemmed from remaining open-minded and discarding currently accepted “knowledge.”
In his old age, Feynman remained practical and “hands-on,” and retained his enjoyment of rejecting the accepted protocol. For instance, while helping investigate the Challenger disaster, Feynman ignored political sensitivity and demonstrated the failure of the o-rings by dipping the material into a glass of ice-water in front of the entire audience.
In October 1987 (age sixty-nine), another abdominal tumor appeared and doctors made a last attempt at surgery. The surgery led to kidney failure, and Feynman refused further dialysis. During the five days it took him to die, Gweneth, Joan, and his cousin Frances remained with him. Having family and his wife there likely made those five days much easier; although Feynman is defined by his work, his life and family relationships were the single-most important foundation for his happiness. Feynman took a similar approach to death as he had taken to his life: “I don’t have to know an answer. 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. It doesn’t frighten me (p438).” His playful, joking nature, which came out during times in his life when he was in a loving relationship, was also present in his last words: “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring (p438).”