Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

2008-10-25

in Books and literature, Science, Writing

This collection of Richard Feynman‘s autobiographical anecdotes is both charming and amusing. More than anything else, it conveys what a remarkable character he is, and what an astonishing variety of things he managed to do. Few Nobel Prize winning physicists can claim to have had a one man art show, learned to pick locks and crack military safes, played the drums for a percussion-only ballet, wrangled cryptographically with the mail censors at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project, spent the summer after finishing his undergraduate degree as ‘chief research chemist of the Metaplast Corporation,’ juggled, deciphered Mayan hieroglyphs, defended a topless bar in court, and fixed radios while he was still a small child. One can never tell if Feynman is being entirely honest and accurate – largely because the character he draws for himself is so uncomplicated and appealing – but one is certainly grateful for the stories.

Indeed, the book provides a nice counterargument to the division of labour. While economics and societal organization have revealed specialization in knowledge and production to be highly efficient overall, Feynman demonstrates the degree to which variety is remarkable and wonderful for the individual. The question the reader is left with is whether they can experience anything comparable without Feynman’s own extensive genius and peculiar character.

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{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

. October 27, 2008 at 1:44 pm
. October 27, 2008 at 1:46 pm

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: A 49-minute BBC Horizon TV programme from the 1980s in which Feynman reminisces about his life and work.

Edge-video: Murray Gell-mann reminisces about Feynman’s personal eccentricities

Bloix October 28, 2008 at 3:49 am

There’s a tendency to think of Feynman as an eccentric, amusing, and sometimes annoying genius. That’s part of his appeal, but when the occasion called for it, he could be penetrating, practical, and tough-minded. For a lay-person, his work on the Rogers Commission, which investigated the Challenger space shuttle disaster, is the easiest avenue into this side of his personality and his accomplishment. You can get a sense of what he did in these two very short videos:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sl8UjQ6yx_Y
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8qAi_9quzUY&feature=related

If it interests you the full Challenger story is found in his collection of essays, “What Do You Care What Other People Think.”

Milan October 30, 2008 at 12:41 am

“The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” is quite interesting and entertaining.

I like the stories about his father teaching him about birds and inertia.

His appreciation of nuclear Armageddon is also interesting, from a contemporary climate change standpoint.

Milan October 30, 2008 at 12:46 am

The Murray Gell-Mann video is also informative, insofar as it provides an outside perspective on Feynman’s self-constructed mythology.

. December 31, 2010 at 1:41 pm

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