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Who's in the Video

James Gleick

James Gleick was born in New York City in 1954. He graduated from Harvard College in 1976 and helped found Metropolis, an alternative weekly newspaper in Minneapolis. Then he worked[…]
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John Templeton Foundation
  • James Gleick, who wrote a biography of Isaac Newton, describes the reclusive scientist as “antisocial, unpleasant and bitter.” Newton fought with his friends “as much as with his enemies,” Gleick says. In contrast, Richard Feynman, the subject of another Gleick biography, was “gregarious, funny, a great dancer.” The superficial differences between the men go on and on. “Isaac Newton, I believe, never had sex,” Gleick says. “Richard Feynman, I believe, had plenty.”
  • So what could these two men possibly have in common? According to Gleick, when it came to making the great discoveries of science, both men were alone in their heads. This also applies to great geniuses like Charles Babbage, Alan Turing and Ada Byron.
  • “They all had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals like me to grasp,” Gleick says, “a kind of passion for abstraction that doesn’t lend itself to easy communication.”

JAMES GLEICK: I'm tempted to say smart, creative people have no particularly different set of character traits than the rest of us, except for being smart and creative and those being character traits. And then on the other hand, I wrote a biography of Richard Feynman and a biography of Isaac Newton. Now there are two rate scientific geniuses whose characters were in some superficial ways, completely different. Isaac Newton was solitary, antisocial, I think unpleasant, um, bitter fought with his friends as much as with his enemies. Richard Feynman was gregarious. Funny, a great dancer, uh, loved women. Um, Isaac Newton, I believe never had sex. Richard Feynman, I believe had plenty. Um, so you can't generalize there. On the other hand, they were both, as I tried to get in their heads, understand their minds, the, the nature of their genius. I sort of felt I was seeing things that they had in common and, and they were things that had to do with aloneness.

Um, Newton was much more obviously alone than Feynman, but Feynman didn't particularly work well with others. Uh, he was known as a great teacher, but he wasn't a great teacher. I don't think one on one. I think he was a great lecturer. I think he was a great communicator, but when it came time to make the great discoveries of science, he was alone in his head. And now I'm talking to, when I say he, I mean, both Feynman and Newton and this applies also, I think, to the, the geniuses, um, that I write about in information, Charles Babbage, Alan Toing, ADA, Byron, they all had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is, um, hard for mortals like me to grasp a kind of, uh, passion for abstraction, uh, that doesn't lend itself to easy communication. I don't think.