Skip to main content

Surely You Are Joking, Mr Feynman – Richard Feynman *****

As far as the general public is concerned there is no doubt who was the greatest physicist of the 20th century – Albert Einstein. Ask a physicist, though, and Einstein will only justscrape in there ahead of Richard Feynman.
Feynman was both a superb scientist and a great storyteller. This lovely book, subtitled ‘adventures of a curious character’ is edited down from taped conversations with fellow scientist and friend, Ralph Leighton.
It’s a sort of informal autobiography, in that it runs through Feynman’s life, but it consists of series of anecdotes, often very funny, of things that happened to this remarkable man.
And they certainly did happen. During the Second World War, for instance, Feynman was working on the project to develop the atomic bomb. Feynman made significant contributions, but his stories are mostly about safe-breaking and lock picking. He was very suspicious of the security regime, which said that everything should be locked away, but then provided inadequate secure filing cabinets, so in his spare time, Feynman set about breaking into as many cabinets as he could.
This, and many other reminiscences make this a superb read whether or not you have an interest in science.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg
Community review – Stephen Goldberg **
Richard Feynman, a physicist, won a Nobel Prize for the development of quantum electrodynamics. This book is not a biography of Feynman, but is an anthology of scattered events in Feynman’s unusual life bringing truth to the book’s subtitle “Adventures of a curious character.” The vignettes of Feynman’s life addressed in the book covered in his childhood when he fixed radios, his life as a graduate student at Princeton University, his work on the Manhattan Project, and his career as a professor. There are also some stories that defy categorization but give a certain texture to Feynman’s life. The stories were very well written and generally quite amusing.
There are two basic types of stories, the ones about himself and some of his antics and the ones about the organizations he worked with or at. The personal stories show that he was something of a trouble-maker. While he frequently outsmarted his peers, he sometimes received his comeuppance from even smarter people such as Robert Oppenheimer. The more interesting vignettes were those that discussed some of the organizations he worked with and the most interesting of these were his conflicts with military at Los Alamos and his description of science study in Brazil.
Feynman portrays himself as an eccentric but he doesn’t necessarily portray himself in a favourable light, but I do not know if this is intentional or not. In this respect, I think that the book is an honest examination of his life. Not only was he a remarkable physicist, he was also an amateur painter and musician. He was also a womanizer and in certain respects he seemed to be bragging about this. On the other hand, he may have just been a product of his environment, having been born in 1918.
This book was disappointing because there must have been many more interesting stories revolving around his work and Nobel prize; stories that would be far more interesting than his ability as a safecracker or his desire to womanize. Thus I do not recommend this book as a source of information on the history of science. On the other hand, if you are interested in learning more about Feynman’s personality and learning that even Nobel-prize winning scientists are also human then this book can be a worthwhile read

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Einstein's Greatest Mistake - David Bodanis ****

Books on Einstein and his work are not exactly thin on the ground. There's even been more than one book before with a title centring on Einstein's mistake or mistakes. So to make a new title worthwhile it has do something different - and David Bodanis certainly achieves this with Einstein's Greatest Mistake. If I'm honest, the book isn't the greatest on the science or the history - but what it does superbly is tell a story. The question we have to answer is why that justifies considering this to be a good book.
I would compare Einstein's Greatest Mistake with the movie Lincoln -  it is, in effect, a biopic in book form with all the glory and flaws that can bring. Compared with a good biography, a biopic will distort the truth and emphasise parts of the story that aren't significant because they make for a good screen scene. But I would much rather someone watched the movie than never found out anything about Lincoln - and similarly I'd much rather someon…

Four Way Interview - Tom Cabot

Tom Cabot is a London-based book editor and designer with a background in experimental psychology, natural science and graphic design. He founded the London-based packaging company, Ketchup, and has produced and illustrated many books for the British Film Institute, Penguin and the Royal Institute of British Architects. Tom has held a lifelong passion to explain science graphically and inclusively ... ever since being blown away by Ray and Charles Eames’ Powers of Ten at an early age. His first book is Eureka, an infographic guide to science.

Why infographics?
For me infographics provided a way to present heavy-lifting science in an alluring and playful, but ultimately illuminating, way. And I love visualising data and making it as attractive as the ideas are.  The novelty of the presentation hopefully gets the reader to look afresh. I love the idea of luring in readers who might normally be put off by drier, more monotone science – people who left science behind at 16. I wanted the boo…

A Tale of Seven Scientists - Eric Scerri ***

Scientists sometimes tell us we're in a post-philosophy world. For example, Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow in The Grand Design bluntly say that that philosophy is 'dead' - no longer required, as science can do its job far better. However, other scientists recognise the benefits of philosophy, particularly when it is applied to their own discipline. One such is Eric Scerri, probably the world's greatest expert on the periodic table, who in this challenging book sets out to modify the philosophical models of scientific progress.

I ought to say straight away that A Tale of Seven Scientists sits somewhere on the cusp between popular science and a heavy duty academic title. For reasons that will become clear, I could only give it three stars if rating it as popular science, but it deserves more if we don't worry too much about it being widely accessible.

One minor problem with accessibility is that I've never read a book that took so long to get started. First t…