Skip to main content

What Do You Care What Other People Think? – Richard Feynman ****

Richard Feynman had an unexpected success with his superb collection of tales (some bearing a good resemblance to reality) told to Ralph Layton, Surely You Are Joking, Mr Feynman? This book is technically a sequel to that bestseller, but anyone expecting more of the same might feel a touch of the disappointment Lord of the Rings fans had when Tolkein’s next book, The Silmarillion came out. In both cases, the sequel had none of the order of the original, and was something of a collection of bits and bobs that didn’t fit elsewhere.
But there the similarity goes away – for most readers The Silmarillion was deadly dull, where What Do You Care is anything but. It’s just that compared with Surely You Are Joking, it is more of a grouping of disparate short pieces of writing, plus half a book. Even so, all come through strongly in Feynman’s unmistakable accents (if you’ve never heard him speak, imagine Tony Curtis reading the words aloud).
The first section contains a few interesting short memories – if you’ve read one of Feynman’s biographies, these will seem rather familiar, but this is the original, in Feyman’s own words. Then there are a number of letters, including his humorous first encounter with royalty. When this book was published, these were a great addition, though since his collected letters are now out as Don’t You Have Time to Think (or Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, depending which side of the Atlantic you’re on), they are less valuable.
Then comes the absolute gem – Feynman’s description of the whole process of the investigation into the explosion of the shuttle Challenger. Again, this will be familiar to readers of a Feynman biography, but the real thing is much richer than any of the versions I have seen elsewhere. Of course there’s Feynman’s famous bit of theatre with the O-ring dipped in ice water, but that gets less coverage than the machinations and the battle between science and logic on the one hand and politics and expediency on the other – it’s gripping. Here we see Feynman doing what he does best – being the innocent in the land of the unnecessarily complex, cutting through the garbage with a sharp question or a quick idea. There’s no doubt at all that this was a knowingly projected image, a persona that Feynman used to get results – let’s face it, he was no fool – but it doesn’t make it any less effective.
Without doubt, the book is well worth buying for the Challenger section alone – and it’s more than a few articles, it’s half the whole contents – totally fascinating in its mix of science and politics.
Paperback:  
Kindle:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

Conjuring the Universe - Peter Atkins *****

It's rare that I'd use the term 'tour de force' when describing a popular science book, but it sprang to mind when I read Conjuring the Universe. It's not that the book's without flaws, but it does something truly original in a delightful way. What's more, the very British Peter Atkins hasn't fallen into the trap that particularly seems to influence US scientists when writing science books for the public of assuming that more is better. Instead of being an unwieldy brick of a book, this is a compact 168 pages that delivers splendidly on the question of where the natural laws came from.

The most obvious comparison is Richard Feynman's (equally compact) The Character of Physical Law - but despite being a great fan of Feynman's, this is the better book. Atkins begins by envisaging a universe emerging from absolutely nothing. While admitting he can't explain how that happened, his newly created universe still bears many resemblances to  nothing a…

Beyond Weird - Philip Ball *****

It would be easy to think 'Surely we don't need another book on quantum physics.' There are loads of them. Anyone should be happy with The Quantum Age on applications and the basics, Cracking Quantum Physics for an illustrated introduction or In Search of Schrödinger's Cat for classic history of science coverage. Don't be fooled, though - because in Beyond Weird, Philip Ball has done something rare in my experience until Quantum Sense and Nonsense came along. It makes an attempt not to describe quantum physics, but to explain why it is the way it is.

Historically this has rarely happened. It's true that physicists have come up with various interpretations of quantum physics, but these are designed as technical mechanisms to bridge the gap between theory and the world as we see it, rather than explanations that would make sense to the ordinary reader.

Ball does not ignore the interpretations, though he clearly isn't happy with any of them. He seems to come clo…

Big Bang (Ladybird Expert) - Marcus Chown ****

As a starting point in assessing this book it's essential to know the cultural background of Ladybird books in the UK. These were a series of cheap, highly illustrated, very thin hardbacks for children, ranging from storybooks to educational non-fiction. They had become very old-fashioned, until new owners Penguin brought back the format with a series of ironic humorous books for adults, inspired by the idea created by the artist Miriam Elia. Now, the 'Ladybird Expert' series are taking on serious non-fiction topics for an adult audience.

Marcus Chown does a remarkable job at packing in information on the big bang, given only around 25 sides of small format paper to work with. He gives us the concepts, plenty about the cosmic microwave background, plus the likes of dark energy, dark matter, inflation and the multiverse. To be honest, the illustrations were largely pointless, apart from maintaining the format, and it might have been better to have had more text - but I felt …