Tuesday, July 19, 2011

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

Richard Feynman was one of the most famous physicists of the twentieth century - a bona fide genius and, if this book is anything to go by, a fun guy!

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is in essence a transcript of taped anecdotal conversations he had with his friend Ralph Leighton. It covers Feynman's life from childhood and college through the Manhattan Project, his winning of the Nobel Prize in the mid sixties, and beyond.

Given the nature of the source material for the book, it should come as no surprise that it has a very laid back and talky style. Feynman vividly recollects and recounts various incidents, people, and ideas from his life. This covers a broad spectrum that includes his time at various universities and a lengthy section on Palo Alto. He describes his work in biology and passion for languages and music, for tinkering (he became something of a safecracker at one point!), and his late success as a painter.

Despite his obvious brilliance he never comes across as condescending or arrogant. He makes frank (often blunt) and insightful comments about people, institutions, society, and ideologies, all in a very accessible and engaging manner, and often punctuated with humour. He was also a bit of a ladies' man and he speaks with the same enthusiasm about his encounters with the opposite sex as he does when talking about physics. Speaking of physics, there are bits in here that may be too esoteric and inaccessible for the average reader, but these are few and far between and certainly don't derail the book.

The disjointed nature of the book makes it more a collection of short stories than a continuous progression, but they are all bound together by Feynman's unmistakable voice. While few people can possibly hope to achieve even a small fraction of what he did, they surely can't fail to be inspired by his unbridled curiosity and love of life, and by how his intellect was checked by modesty and humility. It's a fascinating look into the mind of a genius!

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