book-reviews

Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!

by Ralph Leighton and Richard P. Feynman

Rating: ★★★★

This book is best described as a collection of anecdotes from Feynman's life, as told by the scientist himself in taped conversations with one of his friends. Ranging from some of Feynman's earliest escapades and through his career as an up-and-coming and then established physicist, these anecdotes almost always centre on some well-intentioned misbehaviour on Feynman's part, but in doing so reveal a great deal about his whole-hearted attitude to life.

A recurring theme in these tales is the unwillingness of institutions to really respond to suggestions. We see this from the hotel where Feynman's outlandish approach to minding the front desk earned him no favour, to the security of the Manhattan Project, where among other security hijinks his interest in lockpicking led to him being banned from people's offices. A curious mind finds a flaw in a system, explains it, and is viewed as a troublemaker rather than an asset.

Another recurring theme is Feynman's broad range of interests, seemingly driven by an ability to find interest in almost any subject or activity. He describes his forays into music -- learning to play in a samba band -- art, picking up women and lockpicking, each with apparent relish at being a newcomer to a field, honing a skill with deliberate practice. You get the impression that you could set him to almost any endeavour and he would find something to enjoy in it.

This is a biography of sorts, and it is not all high-spirited recollection. Feynman relates solemnly his response to his first wife's death, and also his struggle to return to research after the Manhatten project, feeling the pressure of a well-funded position and crippling burnout. These elements are perhaps too rare, but the title itself does suggest that the topic is only what is least believable about his life.

An excellent series of instructive tales for anyone interested in what might be called the culture of science, Feynman's truth-seeking anti-authoritarianism make this collection a good light read for people from almost any background, but particularly appropriate for the young man in a STEM major.