Summary of Genius by James Gleick

BookSummaryClub Blog Summary of Genius by James Gleick

Do you know the name, Richard Feynman? He was an amazing physicist who contributed greatly to his field. In fact, his contributions were so great, they are still used today. Feynman’s focus was not only on physics in general. He also took a particular interest in quantum physics and superfluidity. 

Feynman was also integral in one of the twentieth century’s most well-known projects, The Manhattan Project. This genius led a life that was fascinating and one that we should know more about. 

In this book summary readers will discover:

  • Richard Feynman’s early childhood
  • His life at college was centred around physics
  • The Manhattan Project
  • Feynman Diagrams, his Nobel Prize and legendary lessons
  • His life outside of physics

Key lesson one: Richard Feynman’s early childhood

Feynman’s father, was a man who believed his son was going to be a great scientist – even before he was born. His father, Melville, a second-generation European immigrant in New York, also wanted to be a scientist. However, at the time, he had limited options and had to settle on being a salesman. Thus, when Richard was born, his father was determined that his son would not have any limits. 

He ensured that Richard’s mind was stimulated long before he could speak by providing him with tiles with geometric patterns. As Robert got older, Melville would take him to museums. Melville would retell the facts and numbers on the information on the displays in a way that Robert could easily remember them. He gave him visual representations of sizes so that Robert knew, for example, how tall a dinosaur really was. Melville also took the time to ensure that Richard knew how things worked and why they were needed. 

These practices continued as Richard got older, increasing in difficulty but all a part of their daily routines. For example, whilst hiking, Melville would ask Richard to identify all the birds they would see. If Richard did not know the answer, Melville would give it to him in multiple languages. This may seem a bit extreme, but Melville’s constant teaching made Richard appreciate the importance of knowledge and learning. 

In high school, Richard was exemplary in academics, math in particular. Unfortunately, his talents ended in the classroom as he had difficulty in sport and speaking to the opposite sex. He chose to stay in his comfort zone and started participating in math competitions. Math competitions were a perfect place for Richard to demonstrate his exceptional skills. The competitions focus were on finding solutions to a problem quickly. There was no need to show calculations or how you got to the answer. Richard had been bred for this type of competition as his problem-solving skills were rooted in visualization techniques. When other students were busy calculating the answer, all Richard would write down was the final answer. 

Richard was able to solve even the most complicated problems by employing visualization. He excelled at math and was so good that he was allowed to teach a math class whilst he was a senior in high school.

Key lesson two: His life at college was centred around physics

After high school, Feynman started college at the Massachusetts InstituteInstitue of Technology. However, math seemed to have lost its lustre and no longer appealed to him after a while. That was when he turned to physics. 

Physics presented him with an endless array of fascinating problems. It became his obsession but at the same time, his performance in other subjects suffered. English, art history, music and philosophy were subjects he didn’t care for. In fact, he particularly hated music and philosophy finding them pointless. This led to him achieving low grades and even cheating on exams as a means to get by. His grades were so bad, he almost got rejected from Princeton when he applied for graduate studies!

Key lesson three: The Manhattan Project

In 1942, when Feynman was finishing up his graduate studies at Princeton, he was recruited to be a part of a research group. Only, this wasn’t just any research group – it was the group working on The Manhattan Project. The group’s sole purpose was to find out how much uranium would be needed to trigger a nuclear chain reaction. 

Feynman’s reputation as a brilliant physicist got him recruited. However, before long, he was made team leader of his own group despite his young age. His unique problem-solving skills led to him encouraging his team to think in different ways. This meant they came up with some rather untraditional solutions much to the annoyance of others. However, over time when people saw that his seemingly out-there theories were actually correct, they began to trust him. 

The team actually had no difficulty in calculating what was needed to make the bomb. The difficulty was in the handling of the physical materials involved. A slight miscalculation on their part would result in a nuclear disaster. However, because they were very aware of this, they worked hard on the calculations to prevent premature detonation and the precise mass of uranium needed. This hard work paid off when just 3 years later in 1945, the first detonation of an atomic bomb was seen over the New Mexico desert.

Key lesson four: Feynman Diagrams, his Nobel Prize and legendary lessons

After the Manhattan Project, Feynman continued his brilliant work in the field of math and physics. In 1947, he produced the Feynman Diagrams, an easy way to understand the complex equations he was working on at the time regarding electromagnetic field interactions with charged particles. The use of these diagrams in his published work about the matter demonstrated that there was no need for the use of complex equations that was the norm for most academic articles. 

Feynman was eventually awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1965. It was an almost humorous occasion as he had much difficulty trying to explain his work to the reporters who showed up at his doorstep afterwards. They failed to grasp his explanations and was requested to sum it up in a minute. Feynman snarkily replied that if he could do that, his work would not deserve a Nobel prize.

In Feynman’s later years, he spent some time teaching physics. His final teaching position was at Caltech teaching introductory physics. Feynman’s tried to introduce students to the way he visualized physics. This was often seen as too complicated for the freshman and sophomore students resulting in some of them dropping his class. However, Feynman was never short of students in his class. Professors and graduate students would always show up, willing to learn from the genius himself. 

Feynman failed to write any books in his lifetime, but his students saw the value in transcribing his lectures. They were eventually published as Feynman Lectures on Physics. The books were valued by many universities and they tried to get them included in the syllabus but they were too complex for beginner students and were rejected. However, many advanced students and professors still read them as they found it beneficial in reimagining how they viewed traditional physics. 

Feynman’s unique way of finding solutions is a huge part of his contribution to physics. It is his legacy and is still used today.

Key lesson five: His life outside of physics

As much as Feynman’s life was consumed by physics most of the time, he was remembered for a few other things. One of these things was his bongo playing. As mentioned earlier, Feynman hated music but somehow, whilst on a break in Brazil he was drawn to the bongo drums. He liked that he could create his own music through improvisation. In fact, he got so good at it while in Brazil that he played with a local band.

Feynman was also an impressive storyteller. His stories were fantastical and exaggerated. These stories were collected and published in books that would go on to be bestsellers. They reflected his character and showed that he was actually humorous. Another character trait which he is remembered by was his approach to ignore the work of others in order to formulate his own thoughts on the matter without influence. He was afraid that if he was subconsciously influenced by the ideas of others, it would mess with his potential innovations. Thus, he avoided scientific papers, especially the first page containing the abstract. If he had to read a paper he avoided the first page and only focused on the problem they were trying to solve, ignoring the results completely. This approach was not appreciated by his peers as his need to solve problems on his own was seen as reckless behaviour. 

Although, Feynman refused to change his approach. And why would he? His methods allowed him to find solutions to problems overnight whilst it took others years. His genius was intimidating, fascinating, awe-inspiring and discouraging all at once because of this. 

The key takeaway from Genius is:

Richard Feynman was a man destined for greatness. Influenced by his father from a very young age, he was taught everything and anything. He was encouraged to think scientifically and to visualize problems. These lessons stayed with him throughout his life. He excelled at math in school and college before opting to venture into physics. With physics, he found an obsession as it provided him with endless, fascinating problems that needed solving. His contributions to the field of physics heavily shaped what it is today, even though his name is not that well-known. Feynman’s unique approach to problem-solving is still being learned today and is found to be invaluable.

How can I implement the lessons learned in Genius:

Much like Feynman did, try using visualization techniques as a problem-solving tool. He used to literally put himself in the problem in an attempt to think of how he could overcome the problem. You should also attempt to avoid the opinions of others if you want to find your own solution to something. Of course, this does not mean you should not be open to collaboration but allow yourself time to formulate your own thoughts before being influenced by others.

🤙 Your Next Step… 🤙

Head across to one of the following pages for more goodies

🍕 Read our Blinkist review and become a member of Blinkist. Read or listen to 3000+ full version quality summaries!

🍕 Read our list of the best business books of all time

🍕 Read some more of our book summaries

🍕 See our top book summary apps