I had been wanting to read Surely You’re Joking… for a while now, so I was pleased to receive the book for Christmas. I finished it the other night – not that it has taken me a month to read! As a collection of memoirs transcribed from recordings by Feynman’s friend Ralph Leighton, it’s very easy to dip in and out of. I kept it besides my bed and enjoyed a few of his crazy adventures every night before going to sleep.
For the uninitiated, physicist Richard Feynman was best known for his contributions to quantum electrodynamics (for which he received a Noble Prize in 1965) and his widely-appealing lectures on physics and nanotechnology. He also worked on the Manhattan Project, and claims to be the only person to have viewed the detonation of the first atomic bomb without the aid of dark glasses – he used the window of a truck to screen out harmful ultraviolet radiation instead.
This story is just one of the many anecdotes relayed by Feynman in the book. He begins his recollection at age 11, when he would fix radios in the local area, and continues the many amusing tales that make up his life from there.
Reading Surely You’re Joking…, I couldn’t help but think that two words summed up Feynman again and again: mischievously curious. He loved to find out new things; and if that knowledge could be applied in the form of a practical jokes, then so much the better. For example, whilst on the Los Alamos base where the atomic bomb was being developed, he taught himself to crack safes, and would go around playing tricks on the rest of the staff.
He also had a great passion for women – it feels like nearly half the stories are about an attempt to get with some girl or another! He must have had some success it seems, as he was married three times over the course of his life.
Even if you have no interest in science (although if that’s the case I’m not quite sure why you’re reading this blog), I would recommend Surely You’re Joking…. Feynman always liked to try new things – as well as the aforementioned safe cracking, he had a stint being a samba musician in Brazil as well as an amateur artist. His life was so full of adventures, you can’t help but be enthralled.
Of course since you’re here you probably are interested in science, and there is a bit of it. Feynman isn’t trying to teach here however, so science is often mentioned in passing as part of a large anecdote, and always in his easy-going, easy to understand style. It’s simple: read it. I enjoyed it so much that I plan to follow up soon with the sequel: What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. I’ll let you know what I think.