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

Summary

  1. Gleick goes into the fascinating history, personality, and accomplishments of Richard P. Feynman

Key Takeaways

  1. Feynman was an unusually original thinker, someone with enormous horsepower who wanted to think and build from first principles – sometimes to an exaggerated degree which wasted a lot of his time and lead to many lost hours. However, this was also responsible for his intuitive leaps and orthogonal way of attacking problems
  2. Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry
  3. Feynman had a deep belief in nature, a skepticism of experts, and a distinct impatience for mediocrity
  4. To Feynman, knowledge was not something used to explain but was pragmatic, something that helped you accomplish things 
  5. He was a true Renaissance man – having had breakthroughs in physics and mathematics and enjoyed playing the drums, picking up women, learning languages, breaking into safes, and more. He was playful, idiosyncratic, independent, and had a chaotic streak in him
  6. If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.
  7. Innovation is simply imagination straightjacketed – this was Feynman’s way of thinking through problems. He set barriers, limitations, boundaries on the problem set and then went about solving within this limitations 
  8. Feynman so thoroughly practiced formulas, integrations, and thought experiments that he developed a deep intuition for how they function and apply in the real world. People often joked that his intuition was so spot on that if he wanted to understand how an electron behaves he would simply ask himself, “If I were an electron, how would I behave?”
  9. In high school he had not solved Euclidean geometry problems by tracking proofs through a logical sequence, step by step. He had manipulated the diagrams in his mind: he anchored some points and let others float, imagined some lines as stiff rods and others as stretchable bands, and let the shapes slide until he could see what the result must be. These mental constructs flowed more freely than any real apparatus could. Now, having assimilated a corpus of physical knowledge and mathematical technique, Feynman worked the same way. The lines and vertices floating in the space of his mind now stood for complex symbols and operators. They had a recursive depth; he could focus on them and expand them into more complex expressions, made up of more complex expressions still. He could slide them and rearrange them, anchor fixed points and stretch the space in which they were embedded. Some mental operations required shifts in the frame of reference, reorientations in space and time. The perspective would change from motionlessness to steady motion to acceleration. It was said of Feynman that he had an extraordinary physical intuition, but that alone did not account for his analytic power. He melded together a sense of forces with his knowledge of the algebraic operations that represented them. The calculus, the symbols, the operators had for him almost as tangible a reality as the physical quantities on which they worked. Just as some people see numerals in color in their mind’s eye, Feynman associated colors with the abstract variables of the formulas he understood so intimately. “As I’m talking,” he once said, “I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with light tan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.
  10. It is not enough to be able to simply repeat, manipulate, and recall mathematical equations. A deep physical intuition of nature and reality is necessary to make the types of leaps that Feynman and Einstein made 
  11. Our knowledge of things is inextricably linked to our language and analogies. Words and phrases that we use cannot be decoupled from our knowledge
  12. Better to have a jumbled bag of tricks than one orthodox tool – imprecise shortcuts and hacks are more effective than rigid planning
  13. Feynman also had tremendous influence in a number of fields outside of particle physics including nanotechnology, genetics, molecular biology, and more. 
  14. Several different times throughout his life, Feynman tried to map his knowledge, the interconnections, and how they influence each other, creating a mental map of his understanding of his world. This would help him understand where his understanding was limited, where connections and interconnections happened, where the edge of the field and new opportunities might be.
  15. Feynman struggled for a long time to figure out which problems to work on. He rarely pursued ideas to their end, even when he was encouraged to do so and the results would likely to lead to breakthrough findings and research papers
  16. Only when you truly understand what an explanation is (not the name, but the nature) can you begin thinking about more subtle questions

What I got out of it

  1. A really enjoyable book which helped me better understand Feynman – how curious, playful, and smart he was but also his temper and his inability to follow through on many papers and experiments. What sticks with me though was how deeply he wanted to understand things – not the name, but the nature. I would also love to see how he mapped his knowledge in his journals. I think this would be a hugely beneficial process to better understand what we truly know, see how things interconnect, where we are lacking knowledge, where the opportunities might lie, etc..