Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman

January 18, 2016
Richard Feynman

Strictly speaking, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is the memoir of Richard Feynman. However, it isn't as much a classic autobiography as it's a loosely-structured collection of anecdotes, originally written down from taped conversations he had with a friend of his. The tone of the book is thus very informal, and much of it reads more like a straightforward transcription of oral language, rather than carefully edited written language. Given the nature of most of the stories, this mostly works to the book's advantage. Reading them feels mostly like having bumped into Feynman in a bar, and him deciding that it's story time.

It's subtitled Adventures of a Curious Character, which is appropriate, because Feynman was a curious character, in both senses of the word. He was also a bit of a polymath. Apart from being a Nobel Prize-winning physicist, he also made contributions to biology (a field in which he initially made a fool of himself asking for a "map of the cat"), and became proficient as a safecracker, an artist, a writer, an orator and a percussionist. He played in a Brazilian percussion band, managed to have his own art exhibition, figured out statistical tricks to beat gamblers in Las Vegas, cracked safes in a top secret military facility in Los Alamos (to play pranks on military officers) and many, many other things. There's an almost-paradoxical quality to how all this is told: He certainly brags of his exploits, but manages to do this without ever being pompous. This, I think, is largely because he also recounts all his frustrations and blunders along the way, so most of them are more about him figuring out something than about him being specially gifted.

In early sections (involving Feynman's childhood and youth), a common theme is his struggles with social conventions and norms, which he had a very poor grasp of at that time. Like most brilliant and eccentric scientists, he's been given Internet armchair diagnoses of Asperger's syndrome on many occasions, but given what he explains about his upbringing, it's just as likely that he simply never learned to care. When he was awarded the Nobel Prize, he originally attempted to decline it, simply because he considered the prize and the associated pomp to be bullshit.

I suppose some modern readers will be put off by the fact that he'd probably be considered a bit of a sexist sleazeball by modern standards. He liked hanging out in strip clubs, he made paintings for brothels, and he studied a kind of 1960s version of what would be called PUA tricks today (including "negging"!). On the other hand, he'd gladly hang out with off-work prostitutes and treated them pretty much the same way as he treated everyone else, with no regard for how their company might be considered "below" him by polite society.

There's only very little technical physics or mathematics (all stories were told to a fellow bongo drum player with little formal science knowledge). The more serious parts of it are primarily concerned with pomp, blind trust in authority, credulity, bullshit and how many important decisions (particularly in the educational system) are made on completely unsound grounds — points that Feynman makes in the grand tradition of the jester. A delightful read.

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