chaos and genius

finished consuming james gleick’s chaos this morning on skytrain. he knows how to write entertaining books on science, drawing on the personal lives of mathematicians, meteorologists, physicists, and biologists to show the human struggle for understanding. plus the book has a lot of very beautiful pictures relating to the development of ideas in the field. i’d be interested in reading some of the developments in the field since the book was originally published in 1987.

chaos largely looks at science done in the 70s, as the study of chaos really began to take hold, with characters like the curious mitchell feigenbaum figuring prominently. you have to marvel at the daring minds who set themselves at the dangerous vanguard of science. careers are at stake. reputations are gambled upon. when theories and research suddenly click and the world is forever changed it is stunning. gleick captures this excitement and wonder. he makes science and scientists sexy.

and how cool is this: a free download of a chaos program that lets you visually look at mandelbrot sets and strange attractors, made by autodesk and based on gleick’s book.

recently i had a chance to read a more recent book by gleick, genius, looking at the life of richard feynman. from his work at los alamos to his investigation into the challenger space shuttle explosion, feynman provoked and innovated fiercely. gleick portrays a man who is extraordinarily driven, funny, charming, and brilliant. again, gleick captures not only the essence of the scientist, but puts science into a social context.

feynman’s character flaws and eccentricities are laid bare, revealing the personal side of genius (as opposed to the very public discoveries and breakthroughs scientists announce).

in this book, too, it is gleick’s writing style that drives the narrative briskly through a heavily populated timeline. he really understands what is exciting about the work people like feynman do.

i’ve signed gleick’s faster out from the library, which i’m looking forward to. i’ve read so-so reviews of it, but i’m betting it’s worth a go. also can’t wait to get my hands on his new book on isaac newton. yum yum.