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Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Surely, You're Joking Mr. Feynman!

Feynman, Richard P., and Ralph Leighton. Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).

Richard P. Feynman was a genius: a theoretical physicist, a Nobel Prize winner, a member of the Manhattan Project, a safe-cracker, the founder of quantum mechanics, a practical joker, a womanizer, a multi-talented man who painted and played the drums and studied Mayan hieroglyphics. He had an insatiable appetite for learning and a compulsive curiosity.

The book is a series of anecdotes told to his friend Ralph Leighton, recorded, and later transcribed to create this book. The stories range from Feynman's childhood, MIT and Princeton education, his work at Los Alamos during the war, through his teaching career. None of it is ordinary. Feynman was a genius with characteristics of a ten-year-old boy: brains, audacity, a bit bawdy, full of practical jokes, and frequently, no doubt, annoying.

As much as the man loved physics, physics remains in the background in all of these little vignettes. What comes to the fore is his curiosity, his humor, his love of learning and teaching, and his refusal to "play the game." Or rather, the games he played were by his own rules.

One of my favorites is "Judging Books by Their Covers" which tells about his experience serving on the State Curriculum Commission to choose new math and science text books for the state of California. Having been involved in this procedure (a committee of teachers) during my teaching career, I knew whereof he spoke when he told about having hundreds of pounds of text books delivered to his door. As he describes the experience of being the only one to read the books, the influx of calls from the publishers, the problems with the Board of Education regarding don't know whether to laugh or cry.

Another one titled "Alfred Nobel's Other Mistake" covers his reluctant acceptance of the Nobel prize and the changes it made to his life. Irreverent!

How one man could have been involved in so many adventures boggles the mind.

I thoroughly enjoyed this one.

Nonfiction. Memoir/biographical. 1985. 346 pages.


  1. Richard Feynman sounds like an amazing man. Thanks for the great review, Jenclair.

  2. I so want to read this! And soon.

  3. Thanks for the review. I think I would really enjoy this book.

  4. OK, I'm super-annoyed with myself now. I borrowed this from one of my co-workers 3 years ago, didn't get around to it, and returned it, unread. Now that I'm moving, I hesitate to borrow a book! gggrrr!
    Thanks for the great review!

  5. LF - He WAS amazing. Brilliant, funny, creative.

    Nymeth - It is easy to pick up and put down because of the short sections, but I kept wanting to read "one more." Snag your boyfriend's copy when he finishes!

    Framed - He was quite a character!

    Bybee - You'll find another copy when you need it!

  6. Ooooh, that sounds fun. Wasn't it Feynman who wrote Six Easy Pieces? I've got that on my shelves, but haven't gotten to it.

  7. Bookfool - Yes, Six Easy Pieces: The Essentials of Physics, but that would be over my head!

  8. Yes, it is a very good book. I'm trying to do a book report on it right now, actually.

  9. Joanna - Feynman certainly lived his life to the fullest!