I first heard about this book about 30 years ago when my uncle, who has a PhD in physics, told me that Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, a memoir by the Nobel-Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman, was his favourite book. At the time I had a lot of wonderful reading options in front of me, and reading a memoir about a physicist wasn’t high on my list. But in the last few years I’ve come across Dr. Feynman more and more, including many people who are non-PhDs in physics, who also loved the book. So I decided it was time to give it a try!
Richard Feynman is….hard to put in a box, and that’s a big part of what made the memoir so enjoyable. Yes, he was a Nobel Prize winner, and spent much of the Second World War at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project, which is the group of famous physicists that developed the nuclear bomb. While those would be accomplishments enough for anyone, they remain in the background of the book, and at best, the grounds upon which to tell other stories about his life.
What makes Feynman unique is his unquenchable desire to make sense of the world, which is another way of saying that he loved to solve puzzles of all sorts. For him, that is what science is all about, and his passion for science comes through powerfully.
Feynman doesn’t just take us on his scientific journeys, though he certainly does that (and to be clear, those were the parts I could rarely follow), but on a whole series of adventures that his curiosities drive him towards. Through the course of the book he learns how to: play a tin drum in Brazil and become part of a Carnival band; draw and paint to the point that the university put on a solo show of his work and his paintings actually sell; become a safecracker; speak Portuguese and some basic Japanese; decode the Mayan math system and become an ametuer expert; and more! It was incredible fun joining Feynman on these adventures, including the many, many nights he spent in clubs until all hours of the night (though I’ll admit, this put me off somewhat). His experiences were often filled with hilarious moments and unexpected twists and turns. More than once I laughed out loud!
What differentiates this book, and why I think it has lasting appeal, is Feynman’s wisdom. He was a clear and consistent thinker, deeply grounded, and totally honest (except when he was playing a joke – which was often – and even then he was usually honest!). Feynman developed a very open, fun and exciting approach to life. He was someone who clearly enjoyed, and needed, a lot of stimulation (which reflects in his exceptional curiosity).
The book did take some getting used to. Feynman writes his anecdotes in a staccato style, which grew on me once his themes started to emerge. Whether you are a science person or not (and certainly if you are), this is a classic book for good reason!
Just Because I Liked It:
- To give you a taste of Richard Feynman’s thinking, take a look at this post about how to evaluate information.
- I was fascinated by this interview with Roland Fryer, a Harvard education economist, on the impact of financial incentives on children’s academic performance. Besides the big takeaway of his research (i.e. incentivize inputs like homework and reading books rather than outputs like marks), there are tons of insights about how we do education and can do it differently. It got me thinking: an incentive program at Netivot for learning mishnayot? For learning basic yediot?