Highlights from James Gleick’s Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman

Sunday, August 19th, 2018

I was recently reminded of Feynman’s anecdote about an early wartime engineering job he had, recounted in Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, and that nudged me to move James Gleick’s biography, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, to the front of my reading queue.

Since I had the Kindle version, I was able to export my “highlights” — although that required a third-party tool called Bookcision:

  • The adult Feynman asked: If all scientific knowledge were lost in a cataclysm, what single statement would preserve the most information for the next generations of creatures? Location: 705
  • “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,” Location: 707
  • Heat had seemed to flow from one place to another as an invisible fluid—“phlogiston” or “caloric.” But a succession of natural philosophers hit on a less intuitive idea—that heat was motion. Location: 725
  • In Switzerland Daniel Bernoulli derived Boyle’s law by supposing that pressure was precisely the force of repeated impacts of spherical corpuscles, and in the same way, assuming that heat was an intensification of the motion hither and thither, he derived a link between temperature and density. Location: 728
  • Visitors less interested in science could pay to see an unemployed actress named Sally Rand dance with ostrich-feather fans. Location: 781
  • When there are a dozen Babe Ruths, there are none. Location: 809
  • They went to the Egyptian section, first studying glyphs in the encyclopedia so that they could stand and decode bits of the chiseled artifacts, a sight that made people stare. Location: 869
  • In just over a decade of full-scale commercial production, the radio had penetrated nearly half of American households. Location: 872
  • If a boy named Morrie Jacobs told him that the cosine of 20 degrees multiplied by the cosine of 40 degrees multiplied by the cosine of 80 degrees equaled exactly one-eighth, he would remember that curiosity for the rest of his life, and he would remember that he was standing in Morrie’s father’s leather shop when he learned it. Location: 892
  • For now, knowledge was scarce and therefore dear. Location: 896
  • Richard spent fifteen dollars on a special entrance examination for Columbia University, and after he was turned down he long resented the loss of the fifteen dollars. MIT accepted him. Location: 939
  • Mathematics is always where they begin, for no other school course shows off their gifts so clearly. Location: 958
  • The theories must make reasonably good predictions about experiments. That is all. Location: 999
  • It follows the path of least time. (Fermat, reasoning backward, surmised that light must travel more slowly in denser media. Later Newton and his followers thought they had proved the opposite: that light, like sound, travels faster through water than through air. Fermat, with his faith in a principle of simplicity, was right.) Location: 1057
  • “Our friend Dirac, too, has a religion, and its guiding principle is ‘There is no God and Dirac is His prophet.’” Location: 1067
  • Having chosen a fraternity, one instantly underwent a status reversal, from an object of desire to an object of contempt. Location: 1147
  • Fortunately they had calculators, a new kind that replaced the old hand cranks with electric motors. Location: 1432
  • In Germany a young would-be theorist could spend his days hiking around alpine lakes in small groups, playing chamber music and arguing philosophy with an earnest Magic Mountain volubility. Location: 1449
  • Feynman had developed an appetite for new problems—any problems. He would stop people he knew in the corridor of the physics building and ask what they were working on. Location: 1535
  • The committee had seen its share of one-sided applicants but had never before admitted a student with such low scores in history and English on the Graduate Record Examination. Feynman’s history score was in the bottom fifth, his literature score in the bottom sixth; and 93 percent of those who took the test had given better answers about fine arts. Location: 1565
  • We have no definite rule against Jews but have to keep their proportion in our department reasonably small because of the difficulty of placing them. Location: 1570
  • In the close, homogenous university communities, code words were attractive or nice. Location: 1592
  • “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” Location: 1798
  • Feynman quietly nursed an attachment to a solution so radical and straightforward that it could only have appealed to someone ignorant of the literature. Location: 1851
  • Implicit in Feynman’s attitude was a sense that the laws of nature were not to be discovered so much as constructed. Location: 1860
  • They assured their readers that these were analogies, though analogies with the newly formidable weight of mathematical rectitude. Location: 1868
  • Another was John Tukey, who later became one of the world’s leading statisticians. Location: 1898
  • Seventeen years later, in 1956, the flexagons reached Scientific American in an article under the byline of Martin Gardner. “Flexagons” launched Gardner’s career as a minister to the nation’s recreational-mathematics underground, through twenty-five years of “Mathematical Games” columns and more than forty books. Location: 1917
  • They discovered that Feynman could read to himself silently and still keep track of time but that if he spoke he would lose his place. Tukey, on the other hand, could keep track of the time while reciting poetry aloud but not while reading. Location: 1934
  • But in the inverse case, when water is sucked in, there are no jets. The water is not organized. It enters the nozzle from all directions and therefore applies no force at all. Location: 1989
  • If there is a disease whose symptom is the belief in the ability of logic to control vagarious life, it afflicted Feynman, along with his chronic digestive troubles. Even Arline Greenbaum, sensible as she was, could spark flights of reason in him. Location: 2122
  • A movie showing a drop of ink diffusing in a glass of water looks wrong when run backward. Yet a movie showing the microscopic motion of any one ink molecule would look the same backward or forward. Location: 2181
  • “You Americans!” he said. “Always trying to find a use for something.” Location: 2379
  • 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. Location: 2392
  • When he told a university dean that his fiancée was dying and that he wanted to marry her, the dean refused to permit it and warned him that his fellowship would be revoked. Location: 2493
  • Not so much as a grain of uranium 235 existed in pure form. Location: 2510
  • In one way or another, by the time the United States entered the war in December, one-fourth of the nation’s seven-thousand-odd physicists had joined a diffuse but rapidly solidifying military-research establishment. Location: 2537
  • Graduate students were being pressed into service with the help of a simple expedient—Princeton called a halt to most degree work. Location: 2585
  • To physicists Oppenheimer’s command of Sanskrit seemed a curiosity; to General Groves it was another sign of genius. Location: 2908
  • If Feynman says it three times, it’s right. Location: 3029
  • the Bethe Bible, the three famous review articles on nuclear physics, had provided the entire content of MIT’s course. Location: 3061
  • Cosmic rays alone sparked enough fission to make uranium 235 noticeably hotter in the high altitudes of Los Alamos than in sea-level laboratories. Location: 3075
  • He told them he could spot wrong results even when he had no idea what was right—something about the smoothness of the numbers or the relationships between them. Location: 3223
  • “It’s twenty-three hundred and four. Don’t you know how to take squares of numbers near fifty?” Location: 3240
  • Bethe knew instinctively, as did Feynman, that the difference between two successive squares is always an odd number, the sum of the numbers being squared. Location: 3245
  • He had simply added the first four terms in his head—that was enough for two decimal places. Location: 3259
  • The manufacturers of such equipment—the International Business Machines Corporation already preeminent among them—considered the scientific market to be negligible. Location: 3286
  • “He is a second Dirac,” Wigner said, “only this time human.” Location: 3385
  • People are predictable. They tend to leave safes unlocked. They tend to leave their combinations at factory settings such as 25-0-25. They tend to write down the combinations, often on the edge of their desk drawers. They tend to choose birthdays and other easily remembered numbers. Location: 3482
  • Experimentalists assembled perfect shining cubes of uranium into near-critical masses by hand. Location: 3618
  • Feynman’s first visit to Oak Ridge was his first ride on an airplane, and the thrill was heightened by his special-priority military status on the flight, with a satchel of secret documents actually strapped to his back under his shirt. Location: 3674
  • When he comes in, tell him Johnny von Neumann called.) Location: 3726
  • He estimated that a Hiroshima bomb in mass production would cost as much as one B-29 superfortress bomber. Its destructive force surpassed the power of one thousand airplanes carrying ten-ton loads of conventional bombs. Location: 3747
  • Before the war the government had paid for only a sixth of all scientific research. By the war’s end the proportions had flipped: only a sixth was financed by all nongovernment sources combined. Location: 3811
  • To have worked on the bomb gave a scientist a stature matched only by the Nobel Prize. By comparison it was nothing to have created radar at the MIT Radiation Laboratory, though by a plausible calculus radar had done more to win the war. Location: 3816
  • Unlike most of the Ivy League universities, Cornell had accepted women as undergraduates since its founding, after the Civil War, though they automatically matriculated in the College of Home Economics. Location: 3870
  • Feynman’s spacecraft would use the outer edges of the earth’s atmosphere as a sort of warm-up track and accelerate as it circled the earth. Location: 3983
  • Cornell’s 1946 fall-term enrollment was its largest ever, nearly double prewar levels. Location: 4022
  • Dyson’s war could hardly have been more different from Feynman’s. The British war organization wasted his talents prodigiously, assigning him to the Royal Air Force bomber command in a Buckinghamshire forest, where he researched statistical studies that were doomed, when they countered the official wisdom, to be ignored. The futility of this work impressed him. He and others in the operational research section learned—contrary to the essential bomber command dogma—that the safety of bomber crews did not increase with experience; that escape hatches were too narrow for airmen to use in emergencies; that gun turrets slowed the aircraft and bloated the crew sizes without increasing the chances of surviving enemy fighters; and that the entire British strategic bombing campaign was a failure. Location: 4293
  • Dyson saw the scattershot bomb patterns in postmission photographs, saw the Germans’ ability to keep factories operating amid the rubble of civilian neighborhoods, worked through the firestorms of Hamburg in 1943 and Dresden in 1945, and felt himself descending into a moral hell. Location: 4300
  • “Other people publish to show how to do it, but Julian Schwinger publishes to show you that only he can do it.” Location: 4750
  • Caltech made itself the American center of systematic earthquake science; one of its young graduates, Charles Richter, devised the ubiquitous measurement scale that carries his name. Location: 5094
  • The school moved quickly into aeronautic science, and a group of enthusiastic amateurs firing off rockets in the hills about the Rose Bowl became, by 1944, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Location: 5096
  • You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. Location: 5140
  • Science is a way to teach how something gets to be known, what is not known, to what extent things are known (for nothing is known absolutely), how to handle doubt and uncertainty, what the rules of evidence are, how to think about things so that judgments can be made, how to distinguish truth from fraud, and from show. Location: 5154
  • susurrus Location: 5247
  • The main rule is to treat the women with disrespect. Location: 5258
  • noetic Location: 5264
  • The year before, Schrieffer had listened intently as Feynman delivered a pellucid talk on the two phenomena: the problem he had solved, and the problem that had defeated him. Schrieffer had never heard a scientist outline in such loving detail a sequence leading to failure. Location: 5502
  • It fell to Schrieffer to transcribe Feynman’s talk for journal publication. He did not quite know what to do with the incomplete sentences and the frank confessions. He had never read a journal article so obviously spoken aloud. So he edited it. But Feynman made him change it all back. Location: 5510
  • a Caltech experimenter told Feynman about a result reached after a complex process of correcting data, Feynman was sure to ask how the experimenter had decided when to stop correcting, and whether that decision had been made before the experimenter could see what effect it would have on the outcome. Location: 5561
  • Sometimes it was not clear whether Feynman’s lightning answers came from instantaneous calculation or from a storehouse of previously worked-out—and unpublished—knowledge. Location: 5753
  • The Chicago astrophysicist Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar independently produced Feynman’s result—it was part of the work for which he won a Nobel Prize twenty years later. Feynman himself never bothered to publish. Location: 5759
  • “I am suggesting that anyone who is transcendentally great as a scientist is likely also to have personal qualities that ordinary people would consider in some sense superhuman.” Location: 5780
  • So many of his witnesses observed the utter freedom of his flights of thought, yet when Feynman talked about his own methods he emphasized not freedom but constraints. Location: 5912
  • “The gravitational force is weak,” he said at one conference, introducing his work on quantizing gravity. “In fact, it’s damned weak.” At that instant a loudspeaker demonically broke loose from the ceiling and crashed to the floor. Feynman barely hesitated: “Weak—but not negligible.” Location: 6435
  • There is a great deal of “activity in the field” these days, but this “activity” is mainly in showing that the previous “activity” of somebody else resulted in an error or in nothing useful or in something promising. Location: 6469
  • He talked about DNA (fifty atoms per bit of information) and about the capacity of living organisms to build tiny machinery, not just for information storage but for manipulation and manufacturing. Location: 6498
  • He concluded by offering a pair of one-thousand-dollar prizes: one for the first microscope-readable book page shrunk 25,000 times in each direction, and one for the first operating electric motor no larger than a 1/64th-inch cube. Location: 6505
  • Learn by trying to understand simple things in terms of other ideas—always honestly and directly. Location: 6533
  • Then when you have learned what an explanation really is, you can then go on to more subtle questions. Location: 6535
  • 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 (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) 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. Location: 6557
  • What we really cannot do is deal with actual, wet water running through a pipe. That is the central problem which we ought to solve some day. Location: 6593
  • “I’ve spoken to some of those students in recent times, and in the gentle glow of dim memory, each has told me that having two years of physics from Feynman himself was the experience of a lifetime.” Location: 6643
  • As the course wore on, attendance by the kids at the lectures started dropping alarmingly, but at the same time, more and more faculty and graduate students started attending, so the room stayed full, and Feynman may never have known he was losing his intended audience. Location: 6645
  • Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her pattern, so each small piece of the fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry. Location: 6689
  • “None of the entities that appear in fundamental physical theory today are accessible to the senses. Even more … there are phenomena that apparently are not in any way amenable to explanation in terms of things, even invisible things, that move in the space and time defined by the laboratory.” Location: 6700
  • “Questions about a theory which do not affect its ability to predict experimental results correctly seem to me quibbles about words.” Location: 6707
  • What can you explain that you didn’t set out to explain? Location: 6752
  • I’m not answering your question, but I’m telling you how difficult a why question is. You have to know what it is that you’re permitted to understand … and what it is you’re not. Location: 6779
  • I really can’t do a good job—any job—of explaining the electromagnetic force in terms of something you’re more familiar with, because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with. Location: 6792
  • He told reporters that he planned to spend his third of the $55,000 prize money to pay his taxes on his other income (actually he used it to buy a beach house in Mexico). Location: 6952
  • “If you give more money to theoretical physics,” he added, “it doesn’t do any good if it just increases the number of guys following the comet head. So it’s necessary to increase the amount of variety … and the only way to do it is to implore you few guys to take a risk with your lives that you will never be heard of again, and go off in the wild blue yonder and see if you can figure it out.” Location: 7004
  • Dr. Crick thanks you for your letter but regrets that he is unable to accept your kind invitation to:
    ☐ send an autograph
    ☐ help you in your project
    ☐ provide a photograph
    ☐ read your manuscript
    ☐ cure your disease
    ☐ deliver a lecture
    ☐ be interviewed
    ☐ attend a conference
    ☐ talk on the radio
    ☐ act as chairman
    ☐ appear on TV
    ☐ become an editor
    ☐ speak after dinner
    ☐ write a book
    ☐ give a testimonial
    ☐ accept an honorary degree
    Location: 7011
  • I. I. Rabi once said that physicists are the Peter Pans of the human race. Feynman clutched at irresponsibility and childishness. He kept a quotation from Einstein in his files about the “holy curiosity of inquiry”: “this delicate little plant, aside from stimulation, stands mainly in need of freedom; without this it goes to wrack and ruin without fail.” Location: 7077


  1. Lu An Li says:

    “The adult Feynman asked: If all scientific knowledge were lost in a cataclysm, what single statement would preserve the most information for the next generations of creatures?”

    Creatures I assume self aware and intelligent? “Humans have used up all the easily obtained resources you will need for your own development and you are out of luck. Sorry!”

  2. Kirk says:

    I think you vastly overrate humanity and it’s effects–So long as we aren’t shooting millions of tons of materials into space, everything we’ve used is still here, just state-changed somewhat. The Earth abides; give it an Ice Age interlude or two, and you’ll never know we were here. Like as not, some of the mineral deposits we’re “using up” represent the remains of some earlier civilization’s junkyards. We’d never know, and because we aren’t really looking at things like that, weeeellll… A time traveler going back into deep time might have some surprises in store for them. Unlikely, but at least possible.

    Additionally, there isn’t anything to say that you have to have a civilization cast in our terms, either–What would a mostly biology-based civilization built by cephalopods look like, and how the hell would we tell it had been here? Why would anything we did affect their ability to arise, with them using totally different resource sets and technologies?

    The eedjits going on and on and on about “resource depletion” have been wrong since day one, when they started worrying about the loss of forest cover in England for making charcoal and ship parts. Malthus predicted we’d all be starving, a long, long time ago–As did the various geniuses who espoused “Zero Population Growth”. Likely real problem of the late 21st and early 22nd Centuries? Population crashes. It remains to be seen if Japan and Germany can dig out of their demographic holes, while the ones China and Russia are in are going to be… Interesting.

  3. Mike says:

    Kirk, you are right about population crashes being a concern for the future. The total fertility rate of the southern half of India is currently below replacement level and the northern half is getting there. Even Muslim Bangladesh is still experiencing a decrease in their TFR.

  4. Lu An Li says:

    1. That abundance of easily obtained natural resources from the time of the Stone Age forward would indicate there was not intelligent species prior to mankind?

    2. Even China will have a future demographic problem with replacement. One family one child rule and all that. NOT enough persons in the work force to pay for future pensions? And a lot of randy young men running around without a suitable number of young female mates makes for a volatile situation. Hate and anger vented in a bad way a possible.

Leave a Reply