Thursday, September 16, 2010

Review 88: Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman!

Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman

A while back, I read another book by Feynman, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, and I wasn't all that thrilled with it. It was kind of disappointing at the time. I knew that Feynman's fame came not only from his scientific brilliance, but from the fact that he was a genuinely interesting, funny and mischievous person. I had hoped that I could find some of that in the book, but to no avail. And so I gave it away so that someone else could get the pleasure from it that I could not.

Still, I was not completely turned off Feynman. There are videos of him around the internet that really show his vibrancy, his energy and the passion with which he approached the world, and I knew there would come a time when I would have to give him a second chance. Thus, this book.

Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman! is the story - or rather a collection of stories - about what can happen to a person with immense confidence in his own abilities, an insatiable curiosity about the world, a willingness to make mistakes, all topped off with a generous helping of genius.

First, as Feynman calls them at the beginning of the book, some vitals.

Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at Caltech, and won the Nobel Prize in physics for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics. He was also one hell of a bongo player, an accomplished artist, and a self-taught safecracker. He was a joker and a prankster and a ladies' man who could bluff his way into pretty much anything he wanted to do, and was often surprised that people believed his bravado. He had a passion for mysteries and puzzles and figuring out how things worked, from combination locks to the movements of electrons to why water curves the way it does when it comes out the tap, and he didn't give a good goddamn about what the rest of the world thought of him.

In other words, Richard Feynman was a pretty awesome guy.

This book is a collection of Feynman's stories, the kind that he might tell at a party or with a bunch of friends traveling. They're the variety of story that might begin with, "Did I ever tell you how I joined a samba band in Rio?" and just go on from there. He starts with his youth, how he was the kind of boy who just loved to tinker with things. He would take electronics apart and put them back together, and then go to junk shops to buy parts that he could build into better radios. He did experiments with ants to find out how they communicated, and dedicated himself so hard to solving puzzles that eventually all he needed was the first line, and he could immediately come back with, "He starts by chopping every other one in three parts."

He was one of those kids whose curiosity was boundless, and who never even imagined that there was anything "better" he could have been doing than exploring how the world worked. I couldn't shake the feeling that if young Feynman were around today, he'd be medicated to the eyeballs just to stop him being so "weird." But you know me. Cynic.

We follow him through his days at MIT, pulling pranks with friends and discovering those interesting weaknesses in human thought processes that allowed him to get away with murder when he was young. His habits of wondering how things work carried him through his participation in the Manhattan Project, his travels to countries like Brazil and Japan, and led him through a life that was never without fascinating and entertaining discoveries.

Long story short (too late), Feynman is - or at least should be - a model for young people today. While the book isn't pitched towards young people, there are several lessons in it that should be taught to every child.

The first is that the world is infinitely interesting. Any kid who whines that she is bored needs to be shown the million and one ways that you can combat boredom just within a ten-foot radius of where you're sitting. Look at something - anything and ask yourself, "I wonder how that works," and then go find out. The possibilities are endless, and the potential exists that you may discover a passion you never knew you had. Feynman didn't start out wondering how electrons work - he fixed his neighbors' radios just because he could. One thing led to another, and next thing you know - BAM! Nobel Prize.

The second point, and it is connected to the first, is to never say No. In his essay, "But Is It Art?" he talks about how he learned to draw. It started when an artist friend offered to teach Feynman how to draw if he would teach the artist about science. While Feynman believed that he would be an absolutely atrocious artist, he still agreed to the challenge, and he stuck with it. Eventually he became well-known as a decent artist, even managing to sell some of his works. Now obviously, there are limits and caveats to "never" - there are times when saying No is the right thing to do. But when you find an opportunity to expand your abilities, to learn new things and face new challenges, the automatic "No" may deprive you of a joy that you never knew you could experience.

Third, you must know who you are. One of the problems inherent in living in a society is that there's always someone trying to tell you who you are, or at least who you should be. Your parents, teachers, friends, all have an image of you in their heads, and are all trying to mold you into that image, consciously or unconsciously. Add to that the government, media, corporations, advertisements, shysters, preachers and other deliverers of hokum and propaganda who are also trying to tell you who you really are, despite having never met you and being pretty sure that you don't already know yourself. And many people, sadly, don't. But Feynman did. He knew who he was, and that was all he needed. He occasionally let people think differently about him, but the thread that runs through this book is a rock-solid self-awareness that allowed him the self-confidence to pick up showgirls or try to turn down a Nobel Prize.

The caveat to this, and a corollary to the second point, is that you can always discover new things about who you are. All through the book, we see Feynman faced with a new opportunity that he thinks he can't do because it's just Not Him. Drawing, playing music, learning languages - those skills didn't fit into the mental model of who he thought he was, a flaw that all of us possess. A lot of us, without even giving it a try, might immediately discard something by saying, "Well, that's just not me." Maybe it could be. It takes courage, and the willingness to fall flat on your face, but if you can discover a new talent or a new passion, isn't it worth it?

Finally, remember that everyone else around you is just as human as you are. Don't be impressed by titles and uniforms, fancy suits and impressive business cards. Don't assume that just because someone wears a soldier's uniform or a thousand dollar suit that they are somehow "better" than you. Feynman not only resisted authority in so many of these tales, he actively worked to subvert it. Whether it's trying to sneak codes past military censors or breaking into the safe that held all the secrets of the atomic bomb, he never let a title get in the way of learning or growing.

One of my favorite Feynman stories related to this last point isn't actually in this book, but I'll mention it anyway. After the Challenger disaster back in 1986, NASA was called on the carpet to explain to Congress why their shiny new space shuttle went Kaboom. The NASA managers went on and on about the O-rings, filling their talk with supercilious jargon and doublespeak, hoping that their haughty attitudes and impenetrable explanations of why the cold weather made the O-rings fail would be comprehensible enough to satisfy the committee, yet obtuse enough to avoid actually admitting that they had done anything wrong.

While they were doing this, Feynman put a piece of the O-ring material into a glass of ice water and let it sit there for a while. Then he took it out, stretched it, and showed that it had lost the pliability that it needed to do its job. With a simple demonstration, he not only showed the fault that led to the Challenger explosion, but at the same time put a bunch of self-aggrandizing stuffed shirts in their places.

I love that story.

Anyway, if you're looking for a Feynman book to read - and who isn't? - this is the one to start with. There's not much hard talk about science in it, just lots of stories about a really interesting guy. Even if it doesn't make you want to get into quantum electrodynamic theory, I hope it still makes you look at the world in a different way.

"You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing."
- Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman!

Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman! on Wikipedia
Richard Feynman on Wikipedia
Surely You're Joking, Mister Feynman! on

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