Wednesday, 28 September 2005

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.
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Review by Brian Clegg

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