Genius. By James Gleick. 532 pages. Pantheon. $27.50. Consider the problem: You're reading James Gleick's biography of Richard Feynman (1918-1988), a great scientist who helped chart the course of modern theoretical physics, was one of the builders of the atomic bomb during World War II and four decades later proved the most clearsighted member of the team investigating the Challenger space-shuttle explosion. He was a gifted teacher, a great talker and legendary for his many extracurricular activities, which ranged from compulsive womanizing to bongo playing to safecracking (a tension-relieving diversion at Los Alamos). Moreover, the story is being told by the author of "Chaos," a man famous for his ability to broker the intricacies of science to the general public. So, all the elements that should constitute a fascinating equation are present. And yet, some crucial element is missing.
There are hints all over the place, spinning about like subatomic particles. But it's Feynman's own words that provide the salient clue. Whenever Gleick lets Feynman talk at length, the book comes alive. So, you consult Feynman's own two best-selling books of autobiographical anecdotes, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" And there your suspicions are confirmed. Feynman was not merely a born raconteur. He had the magical ability to make abstract things seem palpable. Describing how he repaired radios as a child, or how he relished the "otherness" of Japanese culture, he displays a pixilated enchantment with finding things out. Gleick captures this spirit piecemeal, describing how "When Feynman talked about fluid flow, he knew he was returning to a childlike, elemental fascination with the world ... The pleasure of watching water in bathtubs or mud puddles ... that was what made every child a physicist, he thought." But here and elsewhere, Gleick prefers to tell you what Feynman thought rather than let Feynman tell you himself.
"Genius" has some fine moments. It offers a thorough overview of modern physics. There is an inspired essay on the nature of genius (Gleick points out that in a postmodern age where genius is largely an outdated romantic notion, scientists are the last serious scholars to believe in geniuses). The only thing missing is Feynman's spirit. To grasp that, you would need to read Feynman himself along with Gleick. They work together beautifully, balancing each other like positive and negative charges.