Book Review: Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman!

Described on the back cover as the “adventures of a curious character,” “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!” is a transcription of conversations between nobel-prize winning physicist Richard P. Feynman and his friend Ralph Leighton. It chronicles his early interest in tinkering with radios through his years working in Los Alamos on the Manhattan project, and on to his dalliances with Art, bongo playing, Mayan mathematics, and practical jokes.

This has to be one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read in a long time – I’ve long been a fan of Feynman for his unpretentious attitude to life. He was truly someone who kept a child-like fascination with the world around him long past the point at which most people have begun to accept the state of things as unchangeable fact. This constant curiosity and playful attitude to life coupled with his razor-sharp intellect led to his winning of the Nobel prize for physics in 1965.

It’s very interesting to get an insight as to how one of the greatest minds of the twentieth century mulled over problems – it seems a lot of how he figured out a puzzle was by direct analogy. If presented with a set of facts, he would construct some simple mental model which exhibited the same state as the known facts, E.g. representing an abstract concept as two balls that spin, and add more properties as more facts are known. Then when presented with a question about the state of the theory, he could relate the question to his constructed model and answer whether the theory was likely to be true based on how his set of “spinning balls” would react given the new information.

His playful side is covered during a very funny chapter detailing his obsession with safe-cracking during Los Alamos. He figured out a method for reducing the number of turns needed to crack a safe, and became known as the go-to guy when any given safe was unavailable when the owner was away on holiday or similar. He took an avid interest in Frigideira playing (described as a “musical frying pan”!),became a competent artist, and could adequately converse in Portuguese and Japanese. The impression you get from the book is that he would happily immerse himself in just about anything that took his interest just for the sake of learning. He describes some initial inspiration for his Nobel-prize winning work as originating from a proof he developed¬† after watching someone in the college cafeteria throwing a plate and wondering why the spinning of the pattern didn’t seem to match the “wobble”.

The final chapter is an adaptation of a talk he gave at Caltech in 1974 on “Cargo Cult Science“, a call for integrity and discipline during scientific investigation. He was someone who shunned pretense and snobbery throughout his life, and initially tried to not accept the Nobel prize. I’d highly recommend the book, and also suggest watching clips of him on youtube to get an idea of this “curious character”.

One thought on “Book Review: Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman!

  1. This is one of my favourite books, and I frequently reread bits from it. I have his lectures on Physics and Computation and they are astounding, but ” What Do You Care What Other People Think ?” is more along the lines of this book, and well worth reading too.

    Feynman is one of the very very few people I would consider to be role-model, the guy is a legend.

    DC – Fantastic alright. I’m just annoyed that it took me so long to read it!

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