By James Gleick, Open Road Media, February 22, 2011, 0679747044
I didn’t finish this book (only 20% read). It’s well written, but I found it pretty tough going after a while. I had read Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! so I know some of Feynman’s history. The books overlap, but Genius is written for someone who wants to understand Feynman’s physics. Surely You’re Joking is written more tongue and cheek and by a self-promoter (something that is claimed in Genius).
The ideas about physics were impenetrable. There are no equations, just prose that I have no intuition to understand. I didn’t do well in physics in college, and I don’t think I’m going to pick it up now – despite having spent 6 years working at a company that does physics. Again, the book is well-written so if you liked Chaos (didn’t read it either), I bet you’d like this.
Feynman’s life is very interesting to me, because he grew up in Far Rockaway, which is near where I grew up. He had a Jewish upbringing as did I. So, I identified a lot with his family life, and yet our lives were so very different that the story is intriguing.
I enjoyed the beginning of the book. Perhaps I should skip ahead of the impenetrable physics to see if there’s more interesting bits.
[k438] 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.
[k441] 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.
[k444] 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.
[k448] “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.
[k519] If his mother’s bridge partners asked how she could tolerate the noise, or the chemical smoke, or the not-so-invisible ink on the good linen hand towels, she said calmly that it was worth it. There were no second thoughts in the middle-class Jewish families of New York about the value of ambition on the children’s behalf.
[k533] Melville Feynman placed a high value on curiosity and a low value on outward appearances. He wanted Richard to mistrust jargon and uniforms; as a salesman, he said, he saw the uniforms empty. The pope himself was just a man in a uniform.
[k535] He favored process over facts.
[k885] He turned on the set, and the noise had vanished. The boy who fixes radios by thinking–that was how he saw himself, reflected in the eyes of his customers in Far Rockaway. Reason worked. Equations could be trusted; they were more than schoolbook exercises.
[k898] The currency of scientific information had not yet been devalued by excess. For a young student, that meant that the most timely questions were surprisingly close to hand. Feynman recognized early the special, distinctive feeling of being close to the edge of knowledge, where people do not know the answers.
[k1014] When Slater arrived, the MIT department sustained barely a dozen graduate students. Six years later, the number had increased to sixty. Despite the Depression the institute had completed a new physics and chemistry laboratory with money from the industrialist George Eastman. Major research programs had begun in the laboratory fields devoted to using electromagnetic radiation as a probe into the structure of matter: especially spectroscopy, analyzing the signature frequencies of light shining from different substances, but also X-ray crystallography. (Each time physicists found a new kind of “ray” or particle,
[k1044] Stratton, handling the teaching chores for the first semester, would sometimes lose the thread of a string of equations at the blackboard, the color of his face shifting perceptibly toward red. He would then pass the chalk, saying, “Mr. Feynman, how did you handle this problem,” and Feynman would stride to the blackboard.
[k1254] Philosophy at MIT only irritated Feynman more. It struck him as an industry built by incompetent logicians.
[k1261] MIT’s physics instructors did nothing to encourage students to pay attention to the philosophy instructors. The tone was set by the pragmatic Slater, for whom philosophy was smoke and perfume, free-floating and untestable prejudice. Philosophy set knowledge adrift; physics anchored knowledge to reality.
[k1373] With guidance from just a few texts they embarked on a program of self-study. Their collaboration began in one of the upstairs study rooms of the Bay State Road fraternity house and continued past the end of the spring term. Feynman returned home to Far Rockaway, Welton to Saratoga Springs. They filled a notebook, mailing it back and forth, and in a period of months they recapitulated nearly the full sweep of the 1925–27 revolution.
[k1440] MIT was still an engineering school, and an engineering school in the heyday of mechanical ingenuity.
[k1587] The case against Jews rarely had to be articulated. It was understood that their striving, their pushiness, smelled of the tenement. It was unseemly. “They took obvious pride in their academic success…. We despised the industry of those little Jews,” a Harvard Protestant wrote in 1920. Thomas Wolfe, himself despising the ambition of “the Jew boy,” nevertheless understood the attraction of the scientific career: “Because, brother, he is burning in the night.
[k1597] Princeton did accept him, and from then on he never had occasion to worry about the contingencies of academic hiring. Still, when he was at MIT, the Bell Telephone Laboratories turned him down for summer jobs year after year, despite recommendations by William Shockley, Bell’s future Nobel laureate. Bell was an institution that hired virtually no Jewish scientists before the war.
[k1782] No other college so keenly delineated the social status of its undergraduates as Princeton did with its club system. Although the twentieth century had begun to intrude–the graduate departments were growing in stature, and Nassau Street had been paved–Princeton before the war remained, as F. Scott Fitzgerald described it adoringly a generation earlier, “lazy and good-looking and aristocratic,” an outpost for New York, Philadelphia, and Southern society.
[k1787] Even the kindly genius who became the town’s most famous resident on arriving in 1933 could not resist a gibe: “A quaint ceremonious village,” Einstein wrote, “of puny demigods on stilts.”
[k1851] As Dirac recognized, however, in concluding his Principles of Quantum Mechanics, the electron’s infinities meant that the theory was mortally flawed.
[k2393] In preparing for his oral qualifying examination, a rite of passage for every graduate student, he chose not to study the outlines of known physics. Instead he went up to MIT, where he could be alone, and opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: Notebook Of Things I Don’t Know About.