Chris's Reviews > The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman
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Jan 08, 09

bookshelves: science
Read in January, 2009

Here's the problem with having high expectations: they're so often dashed.

In my years trawling the web and being a science nerd, I've heard a lot about Richard Feynman. There are legends about him, that he was the Puck of physics - brilliant, untamed, and really, really funny. When I got the book, I was expecting to read a lightning-quick volley of ideas that would set my mind alight with the wonder and infinite possibilities continued within a lifetime's pursuit of science.

Yeah, that didn't quite happen.

Don't get me wrong - Feynman is indisputably brilliant, and far from the classic mold of the physicist. He had no patience for titles or honors, and in fact couldn't give a damn about them as long as he had science to do. He would tell Nobel laureates - men whose names were bywords for scientific brilliance - that they were wrong, without hedging or worrying about their egos. He liked to play the bongos, loved a good party, and delighted in playing tricks. One of his more irritating hobbies was safe-cracking, and by the time he left Los Alamos labs after the Manhattan Project there were no places left to hide secrets from Feynman.

So Feynman was no doubt a really cool guy, the kind of scientist you would want to invite to your party without hesitation. His first interest was science, and as scientist go, he was one of the best.

That doesn't mean that reading him is entirely entertaining.

The book is, for me, not very readable for two reasons. The first is that it goes get terribly technical at times, and while I love science, I am not educated enough in it to grasp a lot of the technical details. Indeed, it broke my heart when Feynman said that, when it comes to physics, if you don't know the math, you don't know the science. True, yes. Humbling, yes. But still....

Were I editing a collection of Feynman's work, I would have started with the Big Ideas, defenses of science as an integral function of humanity's ultimate progress. Then, having made the reader comfortable with how Feynman thought, they could have gotten into what Feynman thought.

But no, the book starts of with highly technical lectures on quantum electrodynamics and the difficulties in getting parallel computers to work. If you don't know a lot about how computers work, or you don't have a detailed awareness of atomic theory, you're going to be a little lost. Or a lot lost. Even his minority opinion on the Challenger accident, something I was especially keen to read, was far too dry to be enjoyable.

The second reason why I didn't really enjoy this book is because a lot of it is transcripts of speeches and interviews. Very few people are able to speak in a readable manner, and someone with a mind like Feynman's - always moving, always active - isn't one of them. There are a lot of asides and false starts, wandering thoughts and truncated paragraphs. Even his more structured speeches aren't structured very well for the reader. Perhaps it would be different to listen to him, to sit in the audience and watch the man speak. I reckon that he had the kind of infectious energy and enthusiasm that would make it easy to gloss over structural problems and really enjoy the speech. But turning speech into print is always dangerous, and here I think it fails.

For different people - people who are deeply involved in physics or who are Feynman acolytes - this book is probably a fascinating look into the mind of one of the 20th century's greatest scientists. For the rest of us, we're going to have to find other things to enjoy from the text, and it is there. One of those is, indeed, the title of the book - the pleasure of finding things out.

For Feynman, science wasn't a rigor or a job, it was a joy. He attributes a lot of that attitude to his father, an unlikely fan of science. As a uniform salesman, Feynman's father was not a scientist and had no scientific training. But he raised his son to think about the world. Rather than tell him why, for example, a bird picked at its feathers with its beak, encouraged Richard to observe the bird, to form a hypothesis and then see if observations confirmed it. His father taught him to question everything, to form his own opinions about the world, and by doing so, made him into a scientist from an early age.

It is that attitude which should be the dominant theme of this book, rather than Feynman's technical genius. He says, over and over, to doubt everything. Ask yourself why things are the way they are, rather than just relying on what other people tell you. Observe, experiment and test, and you're doing science.

He has some disdain for social sciences, and a pretty healthy dose of misogyny in a couple of places, but if he is arrogant, then it is probably deserved. Feynman was a man fascinated with how the universe worked, all the way down to its smallest components, and that was his passion. Not awards, not titles, not praise - just the work, the discovery and the pleasure.
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Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Leslie (new)

Leslie I thought that "You Must Be Joking, Mr. Feynman" was very entertaining. It is autobiographical and very sly. You can see how the brain of a genius develops, and I found myself wishing I had lived on his street when I was a kid. When he gets into academia and politics, I laughed out loud. If you ever want to try again...this would be the one.


Chris I might do that at some point. I've seen that book many times at the bookstore and thought, "Maybe..." Thanks for the recommendation.


Brackman1066 If you're interesting in the NASA commission, the book you want is *What Do You Care What Other People Think*--the whole second part is his narrative of that. It's much less technical than the report itself--it was like reading a detective story.


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