Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

by Richard P. Feynman

Cover image

Told To: Ralph Leighton
Editor: Edward Hutchings
Publisher: Bantam
Copyright: February 1985
Printing: April 1989
ISBN: 0-553-34668-7
Format: Trade paperback
Pages: 317

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Richard Feynman was a Nobel-prize-winning physicist best known for his alternative formulation of quantum mechanics and his work on quantum electrodynamics. Like many physicists of his generation, he also worked on the Manhattan Project to construct a nuclear bomb during World War II. Late in life, he became renowned for his participation in the panel investigating the Challenger disaster. He was also a professor at Caltech, where he won the highly prestigious Oersted Medal for teaching.

This is a book full of fascinating stories and adventures that for the most part fall into none of those categories, which is one of the most compelling things about Feynman. He's not only brilliant, he's eccentric, forthright, astonishingly self-confident, and compulsively curious about things that range far wider than his area of expertise.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman is an autobiography by anecdote. It leaves out much of the structure and framework of an autobiography and skims over what a conventional biography would treat as the meat of Feynman's career (much of the physics, much of his personal life, almost the entirety of his teaching career). Instead, reading it is like listening to Feynman tell funny stories and tall tales about his life. The book isn't horribly clear about authorship — it's based on taped stories related to and apparently written down by Robert Leighton, but was published while Feynman was still living and was presumably reviewed by him — but it communicates a clear voice and mischievous sense of humor.

The stories start with Feynman's childhood, when he figured out how to repair radios and made a reputation for himself doing so around the neighborhood, and run through his career at Caltech. The most memorable are probably the stories of the Manhattan Project, particularly his famous account of how he figured out how to crack the office safes used in the project and then made use of that later on several occasions to recover important files (as well as to play with people's heads). There are few weak stories, though; nearly every one is a gem. Many of them are accounts of how some topic piqued Feynman's curiosity, often with a dare or a challenge as extra incentive, and they're full of fascinating little experiments or practical applications of physics. Very little of it is the deep quantum physics that Feynman is known for. One of his charms is that the everyday physics of daily life seems just as fascinating to him, and he's just as willing to share that fascination as his interest in the deep magic realms of theoretical physics.

Apart from physics, the other constant themes of these stories are a desire to poke at how the world works, both things and people, and an audacious self-confidence that he often uses to fool people into thinking he knows more than he does. Examples of the former include his experiments with dream analysis and lucid dreaming, his studies of ants, and his forays into drawing and bongo drumming. Examples of the latter are imitating the cadence of language and leaving people with the impression that he spoke languages he didn't understand at all (or making himself fully understood without speaking the language) or getting remarkably lucky solving math problems in his head. And when he finds something (usually some set of rules) that he doesn't think make sense, he's merciless about poking sticks at it: subtly exposing a hole in the fence at Los Alamos, frequenting and testifying for a topless bar, or participating in the high school textbook selection process in California. One comes away from this book feeling like the universe makes so much more sense when Feynman explains it, and simultaneously realizing how difficult it would be to muster the self-confidence to get away with much of what he gets away with.

This is my second reading, the first about fifteen years ago, and Surely You're Joking stood up to re-reading marvelously. I'm not sure what combination it is of Feynman's natural storytelling method, Leighton's recording, or Hutchings' editing, but these stories are compulsively readable, brisk and to the point, well-paced, and told with the easy, off-handed style of someone who wants to let the reader in on all the jokes. Feynman can be self-deprecating without false modesty, a talent that makes the stories fun rather than painful even when you're shaking your head and thinking "I can't believe he did that." He rescues even a frankly sexist story about picking up women with enough charm, sense of experiment, self-deprecation, and odd sense of honor that it only provoked the occasional cringe.

This is one of those rare books that I think everyone should read at least once. It's brief, compellingly entertaining, and communicates the experimental, investigative outlook on the world that I think is the hardest thing to capture and teach about physics and the scientific mindset in general. Feynman both tells great stories and, in the process, shows some of how he thinks. There are tons of books out there on analytical thinking, how to evaluate evidence, and how to maintain an open but skeptical mind. I think a few of Feynman's anecdotes convey more practical lessons, indirectly and entirely without preachiness, than most of them put together.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2008-07-25

Last modified and spun 2015-07-06