I’ve had so much fun reading this summer, that I’ve decided to post a few recommendations. I also have a few standalone posts I’ve been working on, as well. I will continue to post regular serial updates, but every once in a while, it’s good to break up the monotony.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr, Feynman
The title Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman comes from a story of Richard Feynman’s days at Princeton. When he first arrived, any social faux pas he made would be met with this phrase and some nervous laughter. Feynman, whose brash nonconformist attitude is written in every page of this book, must have heard this phrase repeated often.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman isn’t a comprehensive biography, but rather, a series of stories that give glimpses into his unique genius and experiences.
Most of my favorite stories in this book take place in Los Alamos, where Feynman worked with some of the most brilliant minds of the day on the Manhattan Project. He was barely out of school when he worked on the project, and indeed, began work before he’d even finished his dissertation. Feynman describes himself as being fairly low on the hierarchy when he began in Los Alamos, and this perspective seems to have allowed him to view a lot of the nitty-gritty. When I think of the Manhattan Project,I always get a very lofty mental image of a tightly-run, top-secret facility filled with the best and brightest. Feynman, however, describes a very rushed project plagued with construction issues, security that was full of holes, and one barely averted major disaster. Feynman’s antics at the facility were amazingly irreverent and entertaining to read.
Another chapter focused on Feynman’s time in Brazil, and the fun he had performing in a samba band. This section of the book featured a prescient address that he gave at the end of his stay- a scathing assessment on the state of science education in Brazil. His words described the current state of science education in the US with chilling accuracy. When Feynman later recounts the time he spent on a US school board curriculum committee, his criticism is equally scathing, but ends on a much more hopeless note. The school where he spoke in Brazil seemed to heed his words, but the US curriculum committee did not.
There was a great deal of levity in this book, but there was one chapter in particular that made me feel extremely uncomfortable. Feynman described lessons he was given in how to pick up girls in bars, and even though this must have taken place before the modern “pick up artist” movement began, his technique would best be described as “negging.” Even though, at the end of the chapter, Feynman mentions that he didn’t like using this technique, he states later on that he “had learned in New Mexico many years before not to be a gentleman.”
Feynman also expresses disdain toward the humanities and those who study them. However, he would often reach out to artists, and in doing so to created a dialogue with people who have different points of view. In fact, in trying to understand art, he became an accomplished artist in his own right.
Despite its negative aspects, I greatly enjoyed this book. Feynman’s approach to problems, and his way of breaking them down and understanding them in a concrete way- even though he was a theoretical physicist- was brilliant. He had a way of cutting through sophistry that so many brilliant people get caught up in, and approaching things in a practical way. Feynman’s passion for empiricism, coupled with his sense of fun, made up his unique genius.