Steve's Reviews > Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman
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Nov 30, 2011

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There’s presumably a rule where only smart people are awarded Nobel Prizes in Physics. Richard Feynman was no exception. This memoir is filled with anecdotes from his childhood spent fixing radios, his experiences as a young man doing bomb research at Los Alamos up through his days as a renowned professor at Cal Tech. The central theme was always that this is one smart cookie. It was interesting to pick up on his thought processes. It probably didn’t feature as much pure science as most of his other books, but at least you could appreciate his intuition into the physical world’s biggest puzzles. Rather than emphasizing the technical details of physics, most of his stories were focused on his other interests and his geeky humor.

While some of the stories were entertaining, and the lumens of candle power abounded, it didn’t always work for me. I kept getting the feeling that had the same stories been told in the third person, they would have been better – less egotistical sounding. In every one of his sidelines, he was masterful. It was like he was still driving home the point of how brilliant he was even when he was slumming it. After a while, I got tired of hearing how he became fluent in Portuguese when he taught in Brazil, or impressed the locals to no end with his distinctive style of bongo playing, or could dance like a professional, or got just about any woman he wanted to sleep with him. It was this last one that left the worst taste in my mouth. Some of his tales of attraction and conquest occurred when one of his wives was on her death bed.

He was probably not as bad as I’ve made him sound. Like I said, we can certainly appreciate his intellect. He had a rare ability to explain difficult concepts in laymen’s terms, too. I got a confirmation of this a week after I finished the book when we were interviewing a former student of his from Cal Tech. He mentioned the “Feynman Effect”: a phenomenon whereby someone asking him a question got answered in such a clear and intuitive way that it was only later that they realized they still didn’t know exactly how it all tied to their existing understanding.

So, count me as a fan of his scientific contributions and his ability to communicate, but not of his swagger. If it had all been a bit of a joke (you know, physicist … funny hair … limited social skills … but a would-be Lothario in spite of it), I would have laughed along with him, but I don’t think that was his intention.
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Comments (showing 1-17 of 17) (17 new)

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message 1: by Susan (new)

Susan Poor Feynman lacked your world-class humility!

Steve Yup, I'm probably as 'umble as Uriah Heep.

message 3: by Susan (new)

Susan Uriah should have been 'umble, yet he wasn't are sincerely 'umble and you needn't be.

Steve What's that, Ms. Pot? You're calling me black?

Or maybe it's more like the Calphalon calling the T-Fal stick-free.

message 5: by Susan (new)

Susan I love how you are able to segue from Dickens to Calphalon so're such a Renaissance Man!

Steve Hmm... blocked by the company server. I'll have to try from home. Thanks in advance, though.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio It's Lawrence Krauss giving a little talk about his book on Feynman:

Steve This looks like it's got both the science appreciation and the 3rd person assessment of the man himself, which is bound to be interesting. Thanks, J N-M (MFSO? Donald Rohrmayer? Nom de plume du jour?), for the recommendation.

Joshua Nomen-Mutatio Krauss is a real no bullshit kinda guy and a super talented physicist in his own right. I haven't read the book but it looked interesting to me for the same reasons you mention above.

message 11: by Miriam (last edited Jan 26, 2012 02:39PM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Miriam One of my cousins did his graduate work under Feynman and your impression pretty much tallies with his assessment. I still enjoyed the book, though.

Steve Thanks, Miriam. It's good to get another data point. Sounds like your cousin is a smart cookie (Cal Tech physics students usually are), so I'll assign this point higher weight.

Miriam Oh, I wasn't trying to imply that you should give it another star. That's just a reflection of how much you enjoyed the book.

Steve I'm afraid I wasn't very clear. The data point I was happy to get was the extra bit of information that your cousin, through you, provided to more or less confirm my view of Feynman. You're right, my stars are what they are.

Thanks again for sharing his impression.

Miriam Oh, okay. You're welcome! Like you, my cousin was especially troubled by Feynman's infidelities (and by his tendency to let his associates know about it, which put them in an awkward position).

message 16: by Cecily (new)

Cecily Feynman is my son's favourite physicist, and this is the only one of his many publications that I've attempted. I think it's really good when such an eminent scientist is able to write popular science as well: non-scientists need to understand something of science, and not be afraid of it.

Steve Feynman has a reputation for explaining concepts in a way we non-scientists can comprehend. From my limited exposure to him, I agree.

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