Monday, October 22, 2012

Book Review - "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman": Adventures of a Curious Character


Front CoverI don’t tend to re-read books or re-watch movies. I get what I wanted out it them the first time around, and I don’t feel as entertained or enlightened the second time. But as I picked up "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman" again, I started wondering why it had been so long since I last read it.
Surely You’re Joking is a collection of autobiographical vignettes from Richard P. Feynman, theoretical physicist and Nobel laureate. While some of the stories deal with Feynman’s professional work as a physicist, the majority of the stories in the book are simply interesting stories from his life, and how everyday occurrences informed his approach to theoretical physics.
The book’s subtitle, Adventures of a Curious Character, is no misnomer. Feynman’s life was definitely not what one pictures when one thinks of a physicist – stuffy, work-obsessed, and absentminded. Feynman was definitely one of the most brilliant minds of the 20th century, but he was also one of the quirkiest, funniest, and most alive. As a child, he learned to build and repair radios, and in his depression-era town he was often hired by hotels and businesses to fix their electronics. While working in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project, he developed an interest in lockpicking and safecracking, and would spend his spare time breaking into his colleagues' safes, in order to demonstrate how insecure they were. In his later years, after receiving the Nobel Prize, he developed an interest in music, and taught himself to play the bongos. Although never formally trained, he became somewhat of a local legend  and was approached by a dance company to provide the soundtrack for a ballet.
One of my favorite stories from Surely You're Joking also comes from Feynman's time at Los Alamos. He noticed that the construction workers working on the facility had cut a hole in the side fence to save themselves a long trip to the main gate. Concerned with security, he tried to report it, but was repelled by the bureaucracy.  So he simply made regular trips out through the hole and then in through the main gate, so that the log showed him checking in may more times than he ever checked out. This almost got him arrested, but the hole did get repaired.
The thing I love so much about Surely You’re Joking is the passion for science that Feynman conveys when talking about “non-scientific” subjects. For Feynman, science wasn't a career, a hobby, or even his life’s work. It was simply reality. To go through life without acknowledging the existence of science would have been like going through life without acknowledging the existence of water. The conversational tone makes for an easy, entertaining read, that's simultaneously depressing (Whenever I read it, I invariably start wondering just what I've accomplished in my life) and inspiring (I realize that the real key to greatness is passion for what you do).