Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! – Richard Feynman

Well this book was a complete surprise when I finally pulled it off the shelf where it has sat, largely undisturbed, for over ten years. The year before buying it I had read Six Easy Pieces and Six Not so Easy Pieces which were sections lifted from the Feynman Lectures on Physics and whilst I had enjoyed them I never felt in the mood to see which topics were included in this volume. In fact this isn’t a physics textbook but a stab at autobiography based on taped conversations between Feynman and Ralph Leighton largely done over a seven year period whilst they were drumming together, Feynman was a keen bongo player. The short pieces that make up the book are arranged in a rough chronological order from his childhood to getting his degree in physics at MIT in the first section, his time getting his PhD at Princeton University in the second. Part three covers his time at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project which developed the first atomic bomb during WWII whilst part four has him working as professor of physics at Caltech and Cornell universities and the final section has some fairly random stories in it. This potentially sounds rather dry but it is far from it, what we actually get is a total of forty anecdotes a lot of which have nothing to do with physics at all. As well as being one of the outstanding physicists of the twentieth century Feynman loved an anecdote and also stretching his brain doing things that had nothing to do with his career such as learning to do safe-cracking and taking it upon himself to translate Mayan pictographs relating to mathematical problems, both of which are covered in this book.

The stories are often humorous such as the first one concerning his Princeton years, which is also where the title of the book comes from. On arrival to start work on his doctorate he was invited to the rooms of the head of college for tea and being a young man from a Jewish background in New York he hadn’t come across this decidedly English concept which was popular amongst the academic elite at Princeton so didn’t really know what to expect. On being asked if he wanted lemon or milk in his tea he replied ‘both’ leading the lady pouring the tea to exclaim ‘Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman!’ One of the funniest stories is his battle with the censors working at Los Alamos, now technically they weren’t allowed to censor mail within America but clearly they were going to because of the nature of the work on the Manhattan Project, However Feynman liked to keep his mind sharp so had already started having his correspondence with his father and his wife include codes without giving him a hint as to the key so that he had to crack the codes and the censors really didn’t like that aspect of his letters. Eventually they settled on having the letter writer include on a separate piece of paper how to crack the code and the censors would remove the solution before passing it onto Feynman. All I can say is he must have been a tricky person to work with and indeed his long time collaborator, Freeman Dyson, described him as ‘half genius, half buffoon’ which he later updated as ‘all genius, all buffoon’.

By its very nature the book is somewhat bitty, there are little, if any, links between the various stories included and you quite often want to know more and it leaves out large chunks of his life including his work on the report into the space shuttle Challenger disaster which helped bring him to wider public recognition outside of the world of physicists and academia. However the fact that it is forty largely self contained tales means it can be just dropped into wherever you feel making it ideal for reading when you just have short periods of time available and it is definitely worth reading, even if Feynman does come over as a pain in the ass at times. My copy was published by The Folio Society in 2012, twenty seven years after it first came out and is beautifully illustrated with numerous photographs along with drawings by Aude van Ryn.

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