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

I, Mammal - Liam Drew *****

It's rare that a straightforward biology book (with a fair amount of palaeontology thrown in) really grabs my attention, but this one did. Liam Drew really piles in the surprising facts (often surprising to him too) and draws us a wonderful picture of the various aspects of mammals that make them different from other animals. 

More on this in a moment, but I ought to mention the introduction, as you have to get past it to get to the rest, and it might put you off. I'm not sure why many books have an introduction - they often just get in the way of the writing, and this one seemed to go on for ever. So bear with it before you get to the good stuff, starting with the strange puzzle of why some mammals have external testes.

It seems bizarre to have such an important thing for passing on the genes so precariously posed - and it's not that they have to be, as it's not the case with all mammals. Drew mixes his own attempts to think through this intriguing issue with the histor…

Foolproof - Brian Hayes *****

The last time I enjoyed a popular maths book as much as this one was reading Martin Gardner’s Mathematical Puzzles and Diversions as a teenager. The trouble with a lot of ‘fun’ maths books is that they cover material that mathematicians consider fascinating, such as pairs of primes that are only two apart, which fail to raise much excitement in normal human beings. 

Here, all the articles have something a little more to them. So, even though Brian Hayes may be dealing with something fairly abstruse-sounding like the ratio of the volume of an n-dimensional hypersphere to the smallest hypercube that contains it, the article always has an interesting edge - in this case that although the ‘volume’ of the hypersphere grows up to the fifth dimension it gets smaller and smaller thereafter, becoming an almost undetectable part of the hypercube.

If that doesn’t grab you, many articles in this collection aren’t as abstruse, covering everything from random walks to a strange betting game. What'…

A Galaxy of Her Own - Libby Jackson ****

This is an interesting book, even if it probably tries to be too many things to too many people. I wondered from the cover design whether it was a children's book, but the publisher's website (and the back of the book) resolutely refuse to categorise it as such. The back copy doesn't help by saying that it will 'inspire trailblazers and pioneers of all ages.' As I belong to the set 'all ages' I thought I'd give it a go.

Inside are featured the 'stories of fifty inspirational women who have been fundamental to the story of humans in space.' So, in some ways, A Galaxy of Her Own presents the other side of the coin to Angela Saini's excellent Inferior. But, inevitably, given the format, it can hardly provide the same level of discourse.

Despite that 'all ages' comment and the lack of children's book labelling we get a bit of a hint when we get to a bookplate page in the form of a Galaxy Pioneers security pass (with the rather worrying…