A couple of friends mentioned Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman to me, and it’s one the funniest books I’ve ever read by far. What a wonderful, wonderful character!
I then bought the collective Classic Feynman instead of SYJ and its sequel What Do You Care About What Other People Think separately, and it turns out to be perfect. SYJ reads very much like a blog, in the sense that the chapters are rather independent and vary greatly in length. I’m sure that Feynman would have topped the A-list bloggers since he’s way smarter than Spolsky, Schwartz, and Scoble combined! What Do You Care has the same style, but half of it is on the investigation of Challenger tragedy, for which Feynman served as a pivotal member in the commission. Classic Feynman interleaves the stories from the two books chronically, and thus shows a much more coherent narrative. And the accompanying CD with an almost complete Los Alamos From Below speech really makes it alive. The book and CD are edited by Feynman’s drumming buddy.
When I received Classic Feynman I only picked those chapters in WDYC to read, since SYJ is still pretty fresh in mind. Those stories aren’t even half as funny as SYJ, but some of them are crucial to understand how Feynman became what he is, which was exactly what I wondered about after reading SYJ. I was particularly curious about his first marriage. SYJ mentioned his first wife Arlene briefly but didn’t say at all how he got married. WDYC told the complete story, the only truly emotional story in either book, in a sad but very beautiful way. It’s all too appropriate that the title of that story was used for the book, which is something Arlene told him many times, and remained his motto.
Some random notes:
- “Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman” is a quote from Mrs. Eisenhart, Princeton Graduate School Dean’s wife. She asked Feynman “would you like cream or lemon in your tea” and he said “both”.
- The only time (in the book) that he felt uneasy about meeting someone was a locksmith who allegedly opened a super-duty safe cold (actually the guy simply used the factory default code). He had no problem giving his first technical talk to an audience including Einstein, Pauli, and von Neumann. He told Niels Bohr his idea was stupid, just like he always does in any discussion about physics. And yet he spent several weeks trying to get acquainted with the locksmith before he finally asked him about safecracking.
- How to ask a girl to sleep with you: just ask.
- Brazil: give lectures and talks in Portugese; play in samba school; bare the truth about the education system. The Brazilian official’s response is pretty amazing: “We have a cancer!” Imagine what would happen in China–Feynman’s name would probably be censored overnight!
Another amazing thing about an official, this time in the US, is in one of the shortest piece “13 Signatures”. Feynman was asked to do some service but he hates the bureaucracy, so he had the official promise him that no more than 13 signatures would be required, including the one for him to cash the check. At the end there turned out to be one extra, and he refused to sign the last document. The official went through many hoops to waive that requirement. Again imagine China: an official bending over backwards to pay you for your service?!
- “I have to understand the world, you see.” No matter if it’s cracking a safe, betting on horses, how to be a “professional gambler” (not by beating the house, but by betting with stupid gamblers), and it goes on and on and on–the whole book is really about this.
A few things he said about the physics education in Brazil:
- The students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant… nothing had been translated into meaningful words.
- Have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven’t told anything about nature… Did you see any student go home and try it? He can’t.
- I couldn’t see how anyone could be educated by this self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything.
He once served in a committee to choose science textbooks for California, and found most candidates horrible:
- (A math book says) ‘Red stars have a temperature of 4000 degrees, yellow stars 5000, green stars 7000, blue stars 10000, and violet stars…’ There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It’s vaguely right—but already, trouble! That’s the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about… (In) the list of problems, it says ‘John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?’—and I would explode in horror… Perpetual absurdity! There’s no purpose whatsoever in adding the temperature of two stars. Nobody ever does that except, maybe, to then take the average temperature of the stars, but not to find out the total temperature of all the stars! It was awful! All it was was a game to get you to add, and they didn’t understand what they were talking about.
- (A science book shows a picture of a wind-up toy and asks what makes it go, and then says) For everything, ‘energy makes it go’. Now that doesn’t mean anything… There’s no knowledge coming in. The child doesn’t learn anything; it’s just a word! What they should have done is to look at the wind-up toy, see that there are springs inside, learn about springs, learn about wheels, and never mind ‘energy’. Later on, when the children know something about how the toy actually works, they can discuss the more general principles of energy.
One of the pieces in the epilogue section is Cargo Cult Science, a commencement address Feynman gave at Caltech in 1974. I think it should be the mandatory reading of every science and engineering student in their first day of school:
There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science… It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it… Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them… In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution, not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.