Book review; Surely, You’re joking Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character)

Waqas Younas
6 min readOct 1, 2017
Courtesy: Goodreads

Did you ever know of a physics professor who could fake foreign languages, play the drums, sell his own drawings, crack safes and go on to win a Nobel Prize? Well, Dr. Richard Feynman was that professor, and this book, as told to his drumming partner, co-author Ralph Leighton, is full of tales of his adventures and descriptions of his varied interests.

Feynman earned his undergraduate degree in physics at MIT and pursued graduate studies at Princeton. He also helped develop the atomic bomb. Eventually, he started teaching at Cornell University and then moved to Caltech, where he stayed for the rest of his life.

Upon reading this biography, I was struck most by Dr. Feynman’s eagerness to learn many different things. He was interested in math, physics, how ants move, lock-picking, music, drawing and what not. It surprised me that one could be interested in so many varied things in one lifetime, let alone actually try to learn them all.

He became interested in mathematics at an early age, and always found practical examples for which concepts would be useful. (As a child he fixed radios for family and friends.) He placed a strong emphasis on actually learning and understanding things, as opposed to merely knowing the name of a concept. Not only was he interested in math and physics, though, he also took courses outside his field in graduate school. He took philosophy and biology classes at Princeton and enjoyed them.

Feynman fondly remembered how his father got him interested in ants. At Princeton, he wanted to find out how ants moved. He set up small, fun experiments in his room to determine if they had any sense of geometry.

Feynman also developed an interest in picking locks. Fiddling with locks was his entertainment at Los Alamos, where he was part of the Manhattan Project. There, he could crack safes, to the surprise of his colleagues, in which top-secret documents related to the atomic bomb were considered safe.

It’s hard to imagine a scientist interested in playing music, but Feynman was. Once in Brazil, he learned music and played at private parties, construction lots and even while marching in the streets. At Los Alamos, he discovered the drums. He played the bongos and performed in theatre plays at Caltech. His music was even used professionally by a ballet.

He also learned how to draw. Although when young he was unsure of the importance of the arts, he later realised that they were important in giving people pleasure. He eventually learned to draw well, and even sold a few of his paintings in exhibitions.

A fascinating thread that runs through the book is Feynman’s insights into life. At one point he looked inward and realized he had to cut down on the amount of decision-making he did to avoid decision-fatigue. Probably to keep space in his mind for important issues and problems, he deliberately stopped making some decisions. He became sick of deciding what kind of dessert to eat at a restaurant, and so always ordered chocolate ice cream. Later in his life, people kept coming up to him with better offers so he could leave Caltech, but eventually he decided that he would stay there and decided he would never evaluate the decision of leaving Caltech again.

He also didn’t really care what people thought of him. He made waves by sleeping on the couch on his first night at Cornell. He also went to social dancing there, although he tried to remain a “dignified” professor. Later, he declined an offer from Einstein to join the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton, realizing that he wasn’t responsible for living up to the expectations of others (he thought these expectations were their failure, not his).

Another of his insights into life was to accept failure. Normally the lives of successful people are portrayed as flawless. Not Feynman’s, which was motivational to me. At Princeton, his advisor gave him a problem on which he gave up. He also admitted he could never really solve the “quantum theory of half-advanced, half-retarded potentials”, though he worked on it for years.

An interesting part of the book describes his life during World War II and how he participated in the making of the atomic bomb at Los Alamos. There he met great scientists, and later fondly remembered how easily those scientists debated difficult ideas, and chose the best possible decision in a timely manner. He came to feel strongly about privacy and censorship during this time because the letters he sent to his wife, who was then ill, were read.

Feynman was close to his family. At various points in the book he mentioned how his father influenced him. It also appeared he loved his sister and stayed close to her. Reading details about his first wife was sort of painful because she remained sick while he was at Los Alamos, but one does get the impression that Feynman loved her.

How he eventually ended up earning a Nobel Prize in physics was also interesting. At Cornell, he began to feel that he could not do any further research, despite his best efforts. Los Alamos had burned him out. Moreover, he realised that preparing good lectures took energy and time away from research. To be able to resume, he thought he should just start playing with physics like he used to. One day, in Cornell’s cafeteria, he noticed a guy throwing a plate in the air and that the medallion of Cornell, on the underside of the plate, moved around faster than the wobbling plate itself. He then calculated the motion of the rotating plate. He even worked out the equations for the wobbling and this then led him to think about how electron orbits move in relativity. He noticed that since he was just enjoying, the whole thing was effortless. Eventually, his computation of the plate rotation led to the Nobel Prize.

Feynman was very passionate about education. He spent time teaching in Brazil and his analysis of their education system is worth noting; I found many things he observed there are applicable to our current educational system here in Pakistan. He was dismayed that students were memorizing everything and didn’t possess the intuition needed to understand concepts. He was surprised that students couldn’t translate concepts into meaningful words. Moreover, it baffled him that students could enter into university, pass exams, and do well in classes, but not really understand what they were studying.

He recounted an incident in which a group of students told Feynman he was wasting their time and teaching them stuff which was beneath them. I have seen such delegations in universities here in Pakistan undermining good teachers. He was also surprised that no one ever asked any questions. If a student asked questions, his friends would taunt him. Feynman noticed that “they got themselves into this funny state of mind, this strange kind of self-propagating ‘education’ which is meaningless, utterly meaningless.” He realised that effectively there was no science being done in Brazil. Sadly, this is also the case in Pakistan.

Feynman’s last chapter, titled “Cargo Cult Science”, discusses integrity in science, something which is rarely discussed. He urged scientists to report their theories as well as all evidence that proves or disproves them. He said, “You must not fool yourself; you are the easiest person to fool”.

Overall, the book was funny and, in some parts, endearing. He tells of realizing how socially inept he was at Princeton, when the wife of the dean asked him whether he would like his tea with cream or lemon. He said both, and the dean’s wife responded, laughing, “Surely, you’re joking, Mr. Feynman”. Henceforth, whenever the dean’s wife giggled, Feynman knew he had made a social error.

He was also frank enough to admit that attracting women was a mystery to him, until he met a man who educated him. Unfortunately, Feynman learned from this man that the best way to pick up women was to disrespect them: Under no circumstances should one spend money on a woman until “you’ve asked her if she will sleep with you and you’re convinced that she’s not lying and she will”. I found this chauvinism and misogyny, especially coming from a man of his stature, quite odd.

I also found it slightly strange that he never learned to read music, given how much he emphasized truly understanding things, because learning to read music is so basic for anyone interested in playing. But maybe one cannot really learn so many things from so many areas in one life.

Lastly, I really wanted to see remorse from Feynman for working on the atomic bomb, but, to my dismay, he never expressed any.

I’m a software consultant with interests in tech, reading, and sports. Please feel free to say hi on twitter: https://twitter.com/wyounas :) Thanks for reading!

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Waqas Younas

Consultant (management & software). Founded few startups as well as worked at some. Interested in books, writing & tea. Email: wyounas@lumsalumni.pk