Wednesday, April 9, 2008

Book Review: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard P. Feynman

This is going to be brief simply because this book is a collection of true stories illustrating the adventures of our favorite scientist/playboy, Richard Feynman.

I'm not even sure how to begin. I guess I will start by saying if you don't know who Richard Feynman is; it would behoove you to find out. He's an American physicist who has led an extraordinary life. He worked on the nuclear bomb, he won the Nobel Prize, he picked some very interesting locks, and is an artist. His travels have taken him from small town New York, to neighboring Cornell, to Brazil and Japan, and finally to CalTech. This book collects his adventures, social comments, and scientific achievements.

I knew some of the interesting things about Feynman beforehand. I had listened to the "Feynman tapes" which I think much of the book was transcribed from. I knew he was an ornery character, but that's not the half of it.

My one criticism is his "active effort toward social irresponsibility." I preach and preach social responsibility so of course I have a hard time when people do things that provide no social benefit for any sound reason. His active pursuit of social irresponsibility gave me a "what the hell" type feeling maybe 2 or 3 times. It seems to me his reoccurring theme was not to be socially irresponsible, but to sarcastically comment through his actions on the fundamental flaws inherent to common social practices and the egocentricism of lesser minded people. However, most of the good stories did come from some sort of action that would typically be unbecoming of a professor, or at least unusual. Clearly, it is those actions that are the reason he is so openly loved among the scientific community. Actions like doing physics research at a topless bar 6 days a week. Or by refusing to sign his name more than 13 times when asked to give a speech. Or by learning to play the drums in Brazil which ultimately led him, an established physicist, to play drums in a ballet years later under the presumption that he was a musician! We should all be so lucky to live with such zeal, enthusiasm, and wonder without repercussion or the need social appeasement. As a scientist I realize that it sometimes seems difficult to break the cycle of all work no play in order to enrich our life with art, or music, or the many other benefits of society. Feynman was exceptionally gifted at that.

Since it's hard to review incoherent collection of stories really can't say too much more about it. The book is great. The man is greater. He is a person we could all aspire to be socially, culturally, and academically!

And now, a deep thought…

Great minds are so awe inspiring; we sometimes perceive them as more than mere humans. It is comforting to know he likes naked women as much as I do!

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