Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman is a Nobel-winning scientist who worked with Oppenheimer and Einstein on the atomic bomb, was a professor at Cornell, and gave lectures on physics throughout the world. He also has a sense of humor and can write. This is further proof that the world is not fair.

“Surely you’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” is an autobiography of sorts. It is told through a series of short anecdotes that tend to focus on Feynman’s love of humor and practical jokes – whether they are played on him or by him. The book lacks many of the hallmarks of an autobiography, however. We know Feynman is brilliant and gifted in many, many areas through his non-egoistic telling of stories. But the reader does not know when or how many times Feynman married, if and when he had children, and many other circumstances of his life.

Instead, the reader is treated to a series of vignettes that are all amusing and all have a common theme: a love of learning and a dislike of pretension. Feynman proves his own intellectual curiosity and abilities not just in arguing physics with the most phenomenally bright names of his or any generation (think Einstein, Fermi, Von Neumann, and Bohr), but in all sorts of other endeavors as well. He learns how to draw well enough to have a one-man show, takes graduate-level biology and philosophy courses with no background in the subjects, and learns Portuguese well enough to give lectures in it.

Feynman’s dislike of pretension comes out in all sorts of amusing ways. He breaks into safes containing all the nuclear secrets of the United States while at Los Alamos, and leaves a series of amusing notes lauding his skill at breaking and entering inside the safes. When forced to perform for a group of Girl Scouts with no warning, he recites an entire poem in made-up “Italian.” And when taking a graduate level biology class (just for fun!) he relates he can catch up to biology students immediately because he doesn’t waste time memorizing what can be looked up in 10 minutes.

Each story ends with what might be termed a moral, but perhaps the moral of the whole book can be found near the end of the chapter “The Dignified Professor.” When challenged about playing with physics that had no immediate application to anything, Feynman says, “‘Hah!…There’s no importance whatsoever [in what I’m doing]. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.’….There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling.” Feynman loved learning because it was interesting. He was not interested in other people’s rewards or accolades; he just loved to know, to experiment, to learn.

Everywhere Feynman saw arrogance, intellectual self-importance, or learning by rote he fought it or mocked it. He loved true learning, which is learning by principle. His sense of the absurd and love of jokes made his life, as the subtitle states, an “adventure of a curious character.”