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Friday, December 4, 2015

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Yesterday I finished Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!. Next books up are Don Quixote (I’ll be using the Rutherford translation), Dune Messiah, and The Bully Pulpit.

Surely You’re Joking was recommended to me by two friends. It is a series of anecdotes from the life of the author, Nobel Prize winner Richard Feynman. He is unquestionably a genius. In taking the graduate entrance exam for Princeton, Feynman was the first person to ever receive perfect scores in both mathematics and physics. In a poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time. I didn’t learn these things from the book. He never boasts for the sake of boasting. He does mention the Nobel Prize, but, aside from the prize money buying him a beach house, he seems to have viewed it mainly as a nuisance. He loved giving physics talks to students, but once he got the Prize he couldn’t go anywhere to speak without it becoming a large production where most of the audience wouldn’t be able to grasp what he wanted to talk about.

Despite the fact that the author was so intelligent (or maybe because of it, I've definitely seen it cut both ways), the book is very accessible. Most of the stories have little or nothing to do with his scientific work. The variety of his experiences is staggering. He made a deal with a friend to exchange science lessons for art lessons. He went on to do well enough to sell his art commercially. During his time in Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project he found a drum that he would play when he had downtime. He eventually went on to compete in Carnaval contests and to play the music for a ballet using only percussion music. Also while at Los Alamos, he would spend his time trying to break into his coworkers’ filing cabinets and annoying the bureaucrats monitoring all mail going in and out by exchanging codes. I’d also like to make clear that you do not need to have any kind of background in physics to enjoy this book. To the extent any of the stories do require some kind of understanding of the science involved, he almost always explains it in terms that pretty much anyone can understand.

Many of the stories have clear lessons to be learned, but he’s never stiff or preachy. These are just things he found out during his life that he wanted to share. He talks about how he was blown away when Neils Bohr sought him out still in his relatively early years as a physicist to get his input on some theories. This wasn’t because Feynman was the smartest or the most capable, though he might have been. The way Feynman describes it, it was because, while he might have great respect for the person putting forth a theory or piece of work, when it came to looking at physics, all he cared about was the physics, so he’d say exactly what he thought. So while Oppenheimer and other greats in physics wouldn’t dare contradict the legendary Neils Bohr, this kid Feynman would say “that doesn’t make any sense.”

Not all of the stories have those kinds of lessons. You’ll also learn about the trials and tribulations of a young physicist trying to get laid by sorority girls, Vegas show girls, and others during the 30s and 40s. He’s very candid. I enjoyed the book, and would definitely recommend it.

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