Archive for May 1998

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” by Richard P. Feynman with Ralph Leighton

26 May 1998
Categories: From the armchair

coverI recently pulled off the shelves a book I have long considered to be one of my favourites and had the joy of a quick re-read. “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” (Adventures of a Curious Character) is a collection of autobiographical anecdotes compiled and edited by Ralph Leighton, a long-time friend and drumming partner of one of the 20th Century’s brightest and most unique thinkers, Richard Phillips Feynman.

Feynman is a hero of mine, and this book captures much of his intellect, humour, and irreverence. Feynman was, first and foremost, a brilliant physicist. His work in quantum electrodynamics garnered him the 1965 Nobel Prize, and his “Feynman diagrams” are nowadays a staple of subatomic particle theory. But that merely scratches the surface. He worked in the theoretical division of the Manhattan Project and contributed substantially to the development of the atomic bomb, the first test of which he witnessed first-hand. He often picked up hobbies just for fun, only to find a curious aptitude for them. For example, while in Brazil on a visiting professorship, his knack for drumming led him to join a mariachi band, until he was considered one of the best drummers around. He enjoyed drawing, and though he used a pen name to distance his art from his fame as a physicist, sold many of his portraits.

Feynman also had a storyteller’s knack, especially when telling tales about himself. Of course every story suffers slightly from the first-person perspective: we know what Feynman was thinking at the time, but have no idea what those around him are really thinking of his actions. He played a lot of games, both mental and social, and one wonders how this affected those around him. A good example is in the chapter titled “You Just Ask Them?” An unabashed womanizer who enjoyed hanging around in strip clubs, Feynman learns from a friend that the way to get a woman to go home with you is to treat her like dirt. If you buy her anything—even a drink or a cigarette—before asking her to sleep with you, the lesson goes, you’ll get nowhere. He discovers, at least on one occasion, that not only is this lesson factual, but that it even works on “nice girls” (as opposed to “bar girls,” who seem to fall somewhere lower on the morality scale). He then throws the lesson aside, saying merely that he didn’t like to do things that way.

Though this may seem to be a callous attitude toward other people, Feynman seems never to have meant it as such. His scientist’s mind provided him with a level of detachment that allowed him to play games and work puzzles without caring much about the reactions of others. (A knowing comment from his third wife provides the title of the sequel to SYJ, What Do You Care What Other People Think?) At Los Alamos, Feynman gained a reputation as a master safecracker, simply because he took the time to puzzle out the inner workings of the combination lock file cabinets and had a small “bag of tricks” to open them. He established a nameless friendship with the resident locksmith, hoping to learn from a real lock “expert,” but when the locksmith finally learned that his new friend is Feynman, the smith’s reaction was that of a novice meeting the master.

So much of Feynman’s personal philosophy comes through in the book. Though never stated explicitly, he seems to be saying “Learn all you can, have fun, play games, take risks, and don’t worry about what other people think.” Late in his life he served on the Presidential Commission investigating the Challenger explosion (as told in WDYCWOPT). Feynman refused to sit still for the standard management explanations and meetings, and instead visited with the engineers and others on the front line of the work. It was Feynman who brought a piece of booster o-ring, a small clamp, and a glass of ice water to a hearing, to demonstrate visibly and clearly what the problem with the boosters was. While the rest of the commission wrote a gentle, “NASA knows it did something wrong and is working to fix it” report, Feynman wrote his own set of scathing conclusions that wound up being relegated to an appendix at the back of the thick, two-volume publication.

He concluded it with words that have deep implications for all of modern living: “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.”