Musings inspired by a book – Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick

I got inspired to read Richard Feynman’s biography while visiting Cambridge and the old Trinity college where they had statues of all these smart people. Richard Feynman didn’t study there but I picked his biography because it has been on my list of books to read for some time, plus he is more recent than Einstein, therefore maybe learnings would be more applicable to nowadays.

Musings and quotes

I found it fascinating that Richard Feyman was interested in all sorts of things and he had various hobbies. He was interested in how his mind and brain works:

“It was his ego, his “rational mind,” that concerned him. He was investigating his mind as an intriguingly complex machine, one whose tendencies and capabilities mattered to him more than almost anything else.” (page 69)

“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.” (page 104)

He did all sorts of random things. That’s encouraging, in a sense that not everything that you do has to be explained, has to have justification or purpose. For example, he played bongos and did lock picking. After he accepted an offer of a new job at Caltech he immediately took sabbatical year at the most exotic beach place he could find.

In college I studied some of the quantum physics described in the book. It was very interesting to read the back story and see which theories have survived to teach in schools now. The reading was very accessible. Some of the explanations were ingenious and I wish I had learned them while studying quantum physics. This book probably should be read when studying quantum physics as part of the curriculum (thought if it would have been an required reading in college I probably wouldn’t have appreciated another reading for homework).

It was very interesting to get a glimpse into how Feynman thinks:

“Challenges and fresh insights came easily from Feynman. He did not wait, as Bethe did, to double-check every intuitive leap. His first idea did not always work. His cannier colleagues developed a rule of thumb: If Feynman says it three times, it’s right.” (page 165)

Interesting, Feynman also contributed to Computer Science.

“The group’s productivity had risen many times since he took over. He had invented a system for sending three problems through the machine simultaneously. In the annals of computing this was an ancestor to what would later be called parallel processing or pipelining.” (p. 201)

One my co-worker some time ago told me about the concept of work-spouses. It is somebody you work together for many many years. Now I notice it everywhere. Richard Feynman also had a work spouse:

“They [Richard and Gell-Mann] were together, working or feuding, leaving heir imprint on every area they cared to touch, for the rest of Feynman’s life.” (page 311)

The title of the book is the “Genius”. So there was quite a bit of discussion of what genius is, the history of it, different viewpoints. I think author did very good research on this topic.

“[Richard Feynman] seemed—but was this true?—to have possessed a rare and distinct quality, genius as an essence, not a mere statistical extremum on a supposed bell-curve of intelligence.” (page 312)

“This was the conundrum of genius. Was genius truly special? Or was it a matter of degree?” (page 312)

Good food for thought. Makes me want to learn more about the topic of geniuses:

“Why, as the pool of available humans has risen from one hundred million to one billion to five billion, has the production of geniuses—Shakespeares, Newtons, Mozarts, Einsteins—seemingly choked off to nothing, genius itself coming to seem like the property of the past?” (page 312)

Where it had gone? There is too much specialization nowadays and any one single person can’t do it all and can’t have a towering genius effect over everybody else.

“Perhaps genius was an artifact of a culture’s psychology, a symptom of a particular form of hero worship.” (page 322)

““Genius is the fire that lights itself,” someone had said. Originality; imagination; the self-driving ability to set one’s mind free from the worn channels of tradition. Those who tried to take Feynman’s measure always came back to originality. “He was the most original mind of his generation,” declared Dyson.” (page 323)

I loved this quote about Feynman. I think it summarizes this book about him quite well:

“Physicists kept finding new ways to describe the contrast between them. Murray makes sure you know what an extraordinary person he is, they would say, while Dick [(nickname for Richard Feynman)] is not a person at all but a more advanced life form pretending to be human to spare your feelings.” (page 388)

This one is inconsequential quote in the book, but it is about dancing.. It is not by Feynman, but some other Oxonian guy:

“Square dances [..] what exactly is square about it – the people, the room, or the music?” (p. 185)


The book was long but I couldn’t put it down. Very inspiring. Very easy to read.

There were whole sections of books devoted to his wife and his relationships with women. I suppose no biography can escape from that.

The back of the book had extensive notes. You can really see that the author has done extensive research. It felt like every single word was annotated.

What also caught my attention is that the story line is not straight. It goes back and forth. The story would start with childhood, then go about later years in life, then return to childhood again. It might sound confusing, but it wasn’t. There was the main story line and then an excerpt from the past that explained what lead to it.


Overall the book was very inspiring. It convinced me that it is fine to have all sorts of random hobbies. Not everything in life has to be for a singular goal. At some point, looking back at your life, all those random things will come together and make sense.

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