Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard Feynman

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character

Richard Feynman (1918-1988), winner of the Nobel Prize in physics, thrived on outrageous adventures. Here he recounts in his inimitable voice his experience trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and Bohr and ideas on gambling with Nick the Greek; cracking the uncrackable safes guarding the most deeply held nuclear secrets; painting a naked female toreador - and muc...

Title:Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character
Author:
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ISBN:0393316041
Edition Language:English
Format Type:Paperback
Number of Pages:391 pages

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character Reviews

  • Otis Chandler
    Dec 17, 2006

    This book was a pure delight. The subtitle "Adventures of a Curious Character" is spot-on. Feynman gave an amazingly human and honest view into his philosophy and take on life, thought a series of stories.

    One thing that struck me most deeply was his passion for learning new things. You would think a world-famous Physicist would just be passionate for Physics - but Feynman was curious about everything he saw. He dabbled in art and was successful enough to have a show, he joined a Brazilian Bongo

    This book was a pure delight. The subtitle "Adventures of a Curious Character" is spot-on. Feynman gave an amazingly human and honest view into his philosophy and take on life, thought a series of stories.

    One thing that struck me most deeply was his passion for learning new things. You would think a world-famous Physicist would just be passionate for Physics - but Feynman was curious about everything he saw. He dabbled in art and was successful enough to have a show, he joined a Brazilian Bongo group and competed with them, he hung out in Vegas until he grokked gambling, he spent time in strip bars in Arizona until he figured out how to pick up women, he cracked safes in Los Alamos for fun - the list goes on! My take: you should have your passions - but you should also have your hobbies. I think I need a new hobby :)

    I really enjoyed his lessons learned from observing the Brazilian educational system. He noted that many of the students were simply memorizing words and formulas and had no understanding of the concepts they applied to. I think this is not a unique problem in education.

    Another lesson learned from Feynman's studies of science is to never take any data for granted. Always always question the sources. Whenever Feynman did an experiment he would re-generate many of the numbers on his own - even if they had been published in other places. For many things we are (and not just in science) standing on the shoulders of giants. The easiest way to be led astray is if those results were never right to begin with.

    I think Feynman was in his heart a true educator and scientist, with real integrity. And I think it drove him nuts how many important decisions are made using unscientific principles. This book was a light-hearted attempt to point that out - not to mention, a very entertaining read.

  • Emily
    Jun 30, 2007

    This book of anecdotes is written in a very casual, fun way that makes it easy to read. The problem is that the author, Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Dick Feynman, is annoying. All the anecdotes involve him discovering a hidden talent, using it, delighting others (or himself if that's his real goal) and then being applauded for it (sometimes only by himself). For example, he discovers that he's a great artist, musician, safecracker, and critic. Everything revolves around him showing off and bein

    This book of anecdotes is written in a very casual, fun way that makes it easy to read. The problem is that the author, Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Dick Feynman, is annoying. All the anecdotes involve him discovering a hidden talent, using it, delighting others (or himself if that's his real goal) and then being applauded for it (sometimes only by himself). For example, he discovers that he's a great artist, musician, safecracker, and critic. Everything revolves around him showing off and being somewhat of a jerk. There were many times when I thought, yeah buddy, *you* think it's funny but no one else does. A few stories like this and it's quirky but piled on top of each other, it's annoying.

    I can't really recommend this book. Maybe mischevious self-aggrandizing guys would enjoy it but otherwise, I suggest a pass.

  • Penny
    Sep 11, 2007

    Feynman is a physicist who taught at Cornell and Princeton, worked on the Manhattan Project and won the Nobel Prize. He's also a complete hoot. The book is a series of autobiographical stories -- pranks pulled as a student at MIT and at Los Alamos, teaching himself to paint, scientific discoveries he made, his three marriages, how he was rejected by the draft board for being mentally suspect (they asked him if he ever heard voices and he said yes he did and then went on to describe what he found

    Feynman is a physicist who taught at Cornell and Princeton, worked on the Manhattan Project and won the Nobel Prize. He's also a complete hoot. The book is a series of autobiographical stories -- pranks pulled as a student at MIT and at Los Alamos, teaching himself to paint, scientific discoveries he made, his three marriages, how he was rejected by the draft board for being mentally suspect (they asked him if he ever heard voices and he said yes he did and then went on to describe what he found interesting about that. He said that sometimes when falling in and out of sleep he'd imagine conversations with his foreign-born colleagues and the voices in his head spoke accurately with their accents -- but that if he tried to imitate such accents he could not do so at all. So how was it that one part of his brain had captured accents correctly but another hadn't? This was entirely typical of Feynman's wide ranging curiosity and intelligence, but the end result in this case was that the psychologists decided he was nuts. His colleagues at Cornell were vastly amused by this.)

    What I love about Feynman -- first of all, his great interest in everything and his willingness to experiment. The great joy he found in working things through (he said that the reason he'd never tried drugs, though he was tempted, was that he enjoyed thinking too much and didn't want to risk that.) Also, he's clearly so very intelligent and reading his book, his thoughts seem so easy to follow -- it makes the world of science seem accessible.

  • Manny
    Nov 22, 2008

    Everyone has a collection of favorite stories that they enjoy telling; but it's unusual for the stories to be so good that a friend insists on writing them down, so that other people can appreciate them too. When I read this book, I almost feel that Feynman's telling the stories himself. Well, when that happens in real life, you always want to join in; here's my personal best effort at a Feynman-type anecdote. I hope it's now far enough in the past that the people concerned will see the funny si

    Everyone has a collection of favorite stories that they enjoy telling; but it's unusual for the stories to be so good that a friend insists on writing them down, so that other people can appreciate them too. When I read this book, I almost feel that Feynman's telling the stories himself. Well, when that happens in real life, you always want to join in; here's my personal best effort at a Feynman-type anecdote. I hope it's now far enough in the past that the people concerned will see the funny side, if they happen to stumble across this page by accident!

    It was early 2000, and I had just started working at NASA Ames Research Center in California. I was part of this little group that was supposed to be developing spoken language dialogue systems for space applications. The guy whose idea it was had started up the group, recruited me and two other people, and then left to join Microsoft Research before I'd even arrived. So everyone was looking at us suspiciously. Why did NASA need software that you could talk to?

  • Roy Lotz
    Jan 05, 2014

    I can usually tell when I’m going to give a book 5 stars by one sign: I can’t shut up about it. Well, I couldn’t and can’t shut up about this book; it was simply great. This greatness sort of snuck up on me. I’d recently read a collection of anecdotes by a scientist (

    ) and found it rather disa

    I can usually tell when I’m going to give a book 5 stars by one sign: I can’t shut up about it. Well, I couldn’t and can’t shut up about this book; it was simply great. This greatness sort of snuck up on me. I’d recently read a collection of anecdotes by a scientist (

    ) and found it rather disappointing. Plus, the whole idea of reading a book of stories about a great physicist, without learning any actual physics, seemed silly. But my skepticism had withered away by the end of the first chapter; I was entranced by the man, absolutely fascinated, and remained so the whole time.

    The subtitle of this book is perfect, because the two meanings of the word “curious” converge to encapsulate Feynman: he was curious in the sense of being odd, as well as curious in his love of learning. I was trying to figure out a way to describe Feynman’s personality, and this is the best I’ve come up with: Feynman is Huck Finn grown up to become a physicist. The qualities that make Mark Twain’s most famous character so endearing are also the qualities that endear Feynman to me: mischievousness, curiosity, cleverness, honesty, naiveté, friendliness, frankness, and an uncompromising moral principle. Like Huck, Feynman is always getting himself into absurd situations, and getting out of them with pure quickness of mind; like Huck, Feynman likes to fool other people and play tricks, but all without a hint of malice; and like Huck, Feynman will stick his neck out for what he feels is right.

    There are some hilarious stories in here, which I won’t spoil. But what was more impressive to me was the amount of serious thought that could be found. Feynman’s criticism of the Brazilian school system—which relied overmuch on memorization by rote, and concentrated overmuch on passing tests, instead of teaching students how to make sense of the world around them—applies equally well to many aspects of the current U.S. school system. Equally relevant was Feynman’s chapter on the time he served on the board that oversaw the evaluation of math textbooks for the California school system; it was a Kafkaesque farce. But by far the most consistent intellectual theme that went through these reflections was an absolute distrust of pretension, reputation, convention, snobbery, prestige, and authority.

    In my own life, one of the most interesting, and also most difficult, lessons that I’ve had to learn is that people are not nearly as competent as they’d like you to believe. When I was a kid, I had a lot of faith in all sorts of things. I thought that if an ‘expert’ said something, it must be true; I assumed that there was a particular ‘expert’ in every type of activity, be it business or science, to ensure that things ran the way they were supposed to. In short, I had the comforting illusion that very smart people in very white lab coats were behind the scenes, ensuring that things ran smoothly. The world certainly cooperated with this illusion for a while (after all, that’s the whole basis of advertising); but it wasn’t long after meeting people in the ‘real world’ that this illusion imploded: the world is run by people underqualified and overconfident.

    I include this bit about myself because I don’t think I would have reacted so emotionally to this rather lighthearted book were it not that I had that experience. In a way, a distrust of all authority is Feynman’s central social message. He is constantly running into ‘experts’ who haven’t the slightest idea what they’re talking about. He goes to academic conferences full of pretentious windbags; he trusts the results of other people’s experiments, and later finds that they were seriously flawed.

    So any time somebody makes a claim, he decides to test it out for himself; and the few times he doesn’t do this, he gets into trouble. This realization, that most people are inclined to trust claims from authority, is integral to his almost supernatural ability to navigate unfamiliar situations; Feynman is so easily able to bluff his way through because people take his word for things. So this central insight—to always check for youself—is both the heart of his scientific attitude, as well as his way of effortlessly gliding through the world. His ability to crack safes, for example, wasn’t due to his knowing a lot about safes, but simply realizing that most people used their safes foolishly, not resetting the factory combination or setting it to something obvious. Most of us assume that we couldn’t figure out how to crack a safe; but Feynman did what he always did, and saw for himself whether he could: and he could!

    I honestly wish that this book was three times its length. Now, I must know more about Feynman. My favorite saints are the ones who would hate to be worshiped, and Feynman certainly would think this glowing review was nonsense. Well, perhaps it is; but the only way you’ll know for sure is by reading this book, and checking for yourself.

  • Brendon Schrodinger
    Feb 19, 2015

    The title of this collection comes from a tale that took place early in Feynman's career where he was invited for an afternoon tea with the dean of his university. The dean's wife is serving and asks him the above question. Richard never drinks tea an

    The title of this collection comes from a tale that took place early in Feynman's career where he was invited for an afternoon tea with the dean of his university. The dean's wife is serving and asks him the above question. Richard never drinks tea and never moves in the same society that does, little own the society that has lemon OR cream with it.

    A big theme of these stories and indeed a running theme in Feynman's life is that he had no time for formalisms, rituals or societal views. He does attribute a lot of this to his upbringing. His father was a uniform maker and often dealt with clients of all types of notoriety and he knew that underneath all those uniforms were just another naked ape. He passed on his views to his children and Richard went so far as to nearly not accept his Nobel Prize. To him it was another form of bullshit and that his reward had already been awarded with other scientists using his findings.

    It's no argument that Feynman was a brilliant physicist, but he also had many interests. And a great proportion of these stories are about these interests or how his interests intersected with his physics work. There is only one story in this collection that is technical in any way. The collection reads as if you had somehow run into Feynman in a seedy bar in 1960s Vegas (there's a story about this time) waiting for a showgirl to finish work. He is a great orator and the origins of these stories are that they were recorded and transcribed by Ralph Leighton, a drumming pal of Richard's. Yes, Feynman played the bongos.

    So while you have this brilliant man, in some ways ahead of his time in the ways that he thought and how he acted, there ares some hints that he is a man of his time. Reading these stories you come to realise that Feynman was quite the womaniser. He appreciated the female form in a socially acceptable way for the time that he lived in. And so when someone from the twenty-first century reads this book he can come across as a bit sleazy. I am not going to defend his attitudes nor am I going to condone them. Personally I found nothing overtly offensive about his actions or his attitudes. But I can imagine my partner reading this and sighing at several statements made by him.

    The book covers times in his childhood right up until late in life. There is a nice large chapter on his time at Los Alamos working on the Manhattan Project. There are also stories about his time in Brazil and Japan and his love for immersing himself in a different way of life. There are also a couple of great chapters on education; one about the standard of students he sees while in Brazil and the other concerning a time when he was asked to be on a panel to decide high school texts for his school region.

    I'd recommend this read to most people. It is extremely accessible, with little jargon or technical physics. It talks more on his philosophy of living, learning and how to deal with the world around you. He is definitely a great orator and that is why his legacy lives on. This book remains a popular seller in the general sciences and recordings of his lectures and interviews are popular on youtube. It's great to know that we still have so much of him around.

    And for those who want more there are plenty more collections of his wisdom. There is also

    a biographic graphic novel.

  • Darwin8u
    Apr 17, 2015

    ― Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

    I've been circling this book,

    , and Gleck's

    for awhile. This one seemed the most fun and easiest place to start. I was driving from Taos/Santa Fe back to Phoenix last week and as I d

    ― Richard Feynman, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

    I've been circling this book,

    , and Gleck's

    for awhile. This one seemed the most fun and easiest place to start. I was driving from Taos/Santa Fe back to Phoenix last week and as I drove past Los Alamos, it was just the particle collision in my brain I needed to start on Feynman.

    Often, memoirs are hard to read because you know a bunch of it is façade. A person is showing you a part of them for a purpose. They want to be viewed as smart, important, funny, etc. They carefully guide you through a Potemkin village of their life. Richard Feynman's memoir is different. Not that I don't think Feynman had an ego. He might have even had an agenda with the book. But, for the most part, he seemed much more interested in the stories he wanted to tell, rather than on how they would make him look. He wasn't all that worried about how he looked so much. His entire life was built around doing what he wanted, exploring what he found interesting, violating taboos, beating his own drums and cutting his own path.

    He was a Nobel-prize winning polymath physicist whose other talents included playing drums, teaching, drawing naked girls, picking locks, making atomic bombs, practical jokes, and telling stories. He wasn't interested in the usual trappings of success. Many of those things annoyed him. He was curious. He was a risk-taker. He was a genius.

  • William
    Jun 29, 2016

    The story of Feynman changed fundamentally, what I think about the world around me.

    The story of Richard and his father helped me to understand, that

    . Parents could pique the interest of the child very early and could give him real answers if he asks why aga

    The story of Feynman changed fundamentally, what I think about the world around me.

    The story of Richard and his father helped me to understand, that

    . Parents could pique the interest of the child very early and could give him real answers if he asks why again and again.

    He changed my view about scientists. He proved that the

    . You rarely have a chance to meet pedagogues who can help you fall in love with learning and set the fire of science in you, as Feynman did.

    This book is not only interesting for physicists and scientists, but also for parents and pedagogues who want to inspire their children, students to have a better life. Elon Musk (founder of Tesla)

    . Where children have a chance to understand the thing work around us, understand the “whys”, and continuously maintain the interest of the students.

    Of course many people cannot afford this luxury. But also they can

    , even if these seems to be terrifying at the first time as a parent. If you encourage your child to question anybody, you will be also questioned. If you encourage your child, not to defer to different orders, it questions basic societal values of many people and they can be stigmatized being unrespectful.

    But I think, you will only show a path for your child, which even can lead to the Nobel-prize, but to a happier, more interesting life. And now I am surely not joking.


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