Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Richard Feynman Comes Alive in Unorthodox Autobiography

I finished reading Richard Feynman's "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" last week, and still find myself laughing about it today.  What could have been a conventional autobiography of the Nobel Prize winner for physics is instead a collection of quirky stories, through which one really gets to know the man.  To give you a sense of the tone of the book, Feynman mentions the Nobel Prize he won about halfway through it, as a sort of after-thought - the focus is rather on what he is truly proud of, like, for example, his ability to break into safes that contained top-secret information about the Manhattan project during the second World War.

Feynman stands out in a crowd of physicists (particularly those of the mid-twentieth century) due to his broad spectrum of personal interests, including social experiments that he willingly inserts himself into, as well as his general bravado.  From the text emerges this larger than life persona who shares Einstein's natural curiosity but lacks his inhibitions.  I mean, one would not expect a distinguished physics professor to go into detail about various ways in which one can pick up sleazy women (there are a couple of chapters where this theme is explored).

The only way in which this autobiography resembles a traditional one is that it is chronological.  What is most striking is how the major events in his life are merely sprinkled into the stories, but are almost never the focus.  Instead, the body of each short story is some wild adventure, a memory, that the man himself is clearly fond of.  Throughout the stories, life lessons are never thrust upon the reader; philosophies and anecdotes lie just beneath the surface, leaving the reader the choice to consider them or not.

One way in which I could relate to Feynman is in his desire to try stuff - his insatiable appetite to explore diverse media that life offers.  He not only took up painting: he actually created enough works of art such that he could hold an art exhibit.  One of his favourite pieces was hung in a prominent place inside a strip club that he frequented regularly.  By the time Feynman plays the bongo drum in a competition in Brazil, and later in support of a ballet, the reader is entertained, though not surprised.

I also particularly enjoyed his insights into effective teaching methods and his undying respect for the scientific method.  He was a man of principle, who lived his life with honesty and integrity. 

Much like Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" and Stephen Hawking's "A Brief History of Time," "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" is one of those book that simply belongs on your shelf.  It is a book to be read, and later re-read.  If nothing else, readers of this book will be forced to abandon their sterotypes about science folks, who are often seen as rigid and unsociable.  As you read it, you may find yourself wishing that you could have sat in his classroom at Cornell or Caltech so that you could feel the presence of this uniquie individual.  Alas, perusing his wild tales is the next best thing.

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