In this phenomenal bestseller, Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard P. Feynman recounts his adventures trading ideas on atomic physics with Einstein and Bohr and ideas on gambling with Nick the Greek, painting a naked female toreador, accompanying a ballet on his bongo drums--and much else of an eyebrow-raising and hilarious nature. Photos.
An exceptionally bright individual, but also a man of unbridled curiosity: he became an expert safecracker (and loved to confound people in Los Alamos by demonstrating that their secrets were not nearly as secure as they thought they were), an expert on Mayan mathematics, and an accomplished amateur artist, bongo drum player, and player of a "frigideria" in a Brazilian samba band. I think he would have been a difficult man to live with given his complete absorbtion in his work and his clearly independent approach to life. But his enthusiasm and curiosity are infectious and they come across well in this book which is an autobiography, but not of the conventional kind: more a series of vignettes of his life. Feynman was never afraid to ask direct questions, and to challenge preconceived notions or faulty thinking, even as a young man working with the giants of modern physics at Los Alamos. This attitude made him a strong sceptic, not to say scorner, of a number of the social sciences. By his account, he was a modest man: not wanting to play on his fame or profile after he won the Nobel Prize, but wanting to be accepted for what he was doing at the time, e.g., playing the bongos as accompaniment to an African ballet! The other thing that comes through is that in all of his accomplishments he built on his natural intelligence with a lot of hard work, concentration, effort, and practice whether in physics or the Brazilian samba band.
There are some funny incidents and descriptions that make you laugh out loud in this book. But one was unintentioned, I think. When he visited Tokyo for the first time, he spent a couple of nights in a modern hotel (the Imperial I think from his description) but then insisted on going to a Japanese hotel because he wanted the more authentic experience. After some hesitation and blocking by his guide/host, it was arranged. He loved it, but he describes arriving at the hotel to be greeted by a woman wearing the traditional "obi". Now, an obi is the very long and complicated band/belt that goes with a kimono. I doubt very much that he was greeted by a woman wearing only an obi!
Well, maybe the first clue as to why this wasn't for me was on the title page--this is described as being "as told to Ralph Leighton." It's not so much a memoir as a series a anecdotes told Leighton by Feynman over the course of the years. I found it rambling and filled with--well, not that interesting stories such as his ingenious way of cutting string beans--which once got his fingers cut. Then there's his tale of picking up girls "And You Just Ask Them?" where he talks of woman as "bitches" and "whores" for, as he sees it, them having an implicit enticement of sex in return for drinks, then calls one woman "worse than a whore" for not having sex with him for buying her a sandwich. And yeah, that anecdote was hard for me to swallow and move on from. It was more the rambling nature that was wearing me down by page 50 though--so I then turned to the index and saw if there might be anything of interest--I looked up anything on Einstein, for instance, who Feynman had met. I came across the chapter "Is Electricity Fire?" and did find myself amused by the way Feynman cut the intelligentsia on this panel he was on down to size. I then went back to where I had been reading and continued--until I hit the pick up chapter. It might not have been a deal breaker had I been having more fun. Feynman has his moments of slicing/dicing naive common sense and flashes of brilliance, but I felt this book desperately needed an editor who would have done some common sense slicing and dicing on this book. I'm afraid I just wasn't charmed as so many have been.
The book is divided into about forty autobiographical anecdotes. Most of them are quick and light and droll, but they tend to have a thoughtful pith (à la Terry Pratchett). This is a good formula, but it would work better if Feynman himself weren't so irritating. Half of the time, he's affecting humility; the other half, he's mocking the foolishness of the people around him. The juxtaposition can be jarring, especially because the mocking is so often pitiless. Humble men are, in my experience, merciful; Feynman is anything but. The inconsistency bothered me, a lot.
That being said, the insights here are really good, and many of the quips are at least chuckle-worthy. If I hadn't been so busy judging the author, I imagine I would have loved the work.
When you think of a Noble Prize winning Physicist you would be forgiven for picturing a rather dry and crusty, tweed wearing character. But how wrong you would be when it comes to the marvel that was and is Richard P Feynman.
Feynman was part of The Manhattan Project and many other 'discoveries' that changed the world of physics. But this collection of stories, edited in a somewhat random fashion, have little to nothing to do with the physics. The book is a collection of anecdotes that chronicle aspects of the great mans life and I can't overstate what an interesting and entertaining read they are. Don't be put off by his stature in the world of science, this is a wonderful read for anyone; and I mean anyone.
From his safe cracking, art shows, appearances as a drummer in Brazil and as a musician for a ballet To his mixing with profession gamblers in Las Vegas and frequenting of 'Gentlemens Clubs'. The extremely strange to the out right hilarious and outrageous, this man has obviously lived a life that would put the rest of us to shame.
And what a read / ride it is.
All that is just to set up that I think this is a great book for a general audience. Mr. Feynmann is a Nobel Prize winning theoretical physicist and you might say to yourself, 'What could I gain from reading an autobiography of such a person? I don't know anything about subatomic whatchamacallits and thingamajiggies.' Well, this is a great collection of anecdotes about his weird life, growing up in the 1920's with a reputation as a kid genius for repairing old fashioned radios to college at MIT and Princeton, after that a stint in the Army at Los Alamos working on the atomic bomb project. Then, professorship and readjusting to society, playing in a samba band during Carnival in Brazil, so on and so on, all the way to tenured professorship at Caltech and the Nobel Prize. Yup, samba band.
I would call this more of an anecdotal autobiography as it consists of stories about events and times rather than a cohesive narrative. Each of them has funny moments and his style is very conversational, all of them jump from topic to topic, one might be about his safecracking exploits at Los Alamos (multi-talented guy), the next about being rejected by the army after the war on a psychologically unsound recommendation, and so on. It pays to play mind games with army doctors and yet be completely truthful. To me, the best parts were his scathing criticisms of the education systems both in the US and in Brazil where he spent a fair amount of time. Mostly it revolves around learning without really learning and people teaching facts by rote as opposed to how to use the facts.
So, this is the best thing I've read in a while (in a general way) and I am sure that anyone who reads it will find it entertaining an at least a few levels. And, a boon to the average Joe who might find this book, there is no physics at all, at most something like 'I was working on a theory of electron/neutron interactions at the time...' Not one single equation either.
Reading this memoir, taped and edited by Feynman's close friend Ralph Leighton, leads the reader into adventure after adventure in Feynman's life. It is a tremendously entertaining book, that is both a quick, page turning read, and very deep in many of the stories and lessons. This is not a science book; the amount of science in the book is minimal, and he does not discuss science in any technical way. If you are not scientifically inclined, this book will still prove to be both insightful and entertaining.
This is sort of a biography of Feynman's life, pieced together from stories he told a friend of his, and one imagines with a final okay from Feynman (since his name's on the book, after all). It covers a lot of his life, with the different stories ranging from when he was a kid through being a student at MIT and Princeton, his time on the Manhattan project, up through being a renowned professor. There's a range in the scope of the stories, from short little anecdotes through long pieces about, say, learning to pick locks, or sensory deprivation, or tea-time at Princeton. It actually makes for an easy read this way; since the stories are all basically standalones, you can jump around the book based on how much time you have to read. It helps to have a little idea about his life ahead of time if you're going to do that, but it's doable without that knowledge, I think.
So the subtitle for this book is "adventures of a curious character," and that really is what you're getting. Feynman clearly comes through as brash, fiercely intelligent, not taking anybody's word just on authority, trying out new things (art, drumming, lockpicking, etc) because they seem interesting - and then following through and trying to achieve the best he can with it, and invested in seeing things through to their complete and logical end. He has a sense of marveling at ways of doing things that get out wrong or incoherent results. It's an approach to life that certainly makes for a rich and diverse set of experiences, and the writing, while simple enough, gives you a real sense of who he was. It won't win any prizes for prose, but he wouldn't want those, anyway. And it still is engrossing and often very humorous.
It's notable, as well, that there's very little science in here, and that you don't get a sense of how harsh he could be (beyond the fact that he very clearly doesn't suffer fools gladly, and that he says often in the earlier studies that had it happened to him now, he would have told the person off / did what he wanted). My dad says he was very invested in having everyone know he was a wild and crazy guy, and told the book that way. The book I read after this (by Herman Wouk; I'll review it next) gave more of the harder side. But the wonderful thing about this book is that it shows you what it really means to be curious and dedicated, to have a desire to really try a lot of things and try to see the heart of them. That's something to learn from, one way or the other, and for someone who was also a great teacher, one might imagine that was part of the purpose, too. It's a fun read to have around, I'd think, for inspirational, amusing refreshment. Not perfect, but then, it definitely held my interest well.
--look at problems as a challenge
--get out of your comfort zone; try to learn new things because when learning is fun, it is effortless and when you make mistakes you learn from them
--engage experts in conversation; and, a corollary, if something doesn't make sense try to find out why
If I had met Feynman in person, I don't think I would have liked him. The writing is not particularly good; it reads like he just chatted with someone who copied it down word for word without editing. It's off-hand and self-deprecating, perhaps to make us think he is a regular guy.
However, the last vignette, Cargo Cult Science, may be his best. He suggests that when you have a problem - such as the best way to teach reading or how to eliminate crime, two examples he gives - don't follow a cult belief. Create your own theory and test it from all angles finding out what works and what doesn't. Get opinions from others, but take care that you haven't fooled yourself, that the results you get don't just serve your own purposes - more grants, more fame, etc. Work with integrity. Can't quibble with that.
One of my favorite sections was when he was asked to review math books for schools. He took it very seriously and did his job thoughtfully even though the other people did less so. At one point, he found the third of a series of books was full of empty pages. He was shocked to learn that others had actually rated this book!
The only part of the book that grated on my nerves was when he won the Nobel Prize and could not be bothered to meet with reporters and others who wanted to congratulate him. It bordered on false modesty.
I recommend that one has an interest and basic knowledge of science or this book will be extremely tedious.
This was disappointing, because I've been wanting to read this for a while because he is so renown for being quite the hilarious character as well as a Nobel prize-winning physicist. This is a collection of essays that serves as a memoir; many are not directly related to physics, but that's definitely the theme. After reading this, my conclusion is that Feynman was mostly a world class knob. He lost me fairly early into it, when he described how you could see physics in action in the everyday world by messing with a waitress's tips. How very droll of you, Mr. Feynman. He is certainly quite the character in the same sense your annoying neighbor is quite the character, the kind who sees you unloading your groceries from the car and saunters over to give you pointless advice about his expert analysis on the best way to unload groceries without helping you, driving you to grit your teeth and nod as you flee toward your door because anything you might say in response, such as "shut UP, annoying guy!" would result in him saying "Aw shucks, I can't help it that I'm smarter than you." Many demerits for egregious overuse of the exclamation point.
Recommended: Not really, although the essays set during his time at Los Alamos are somewhat interesting given the historical context. I suppose it's possible he really was charming and amusing in real life, but you wouldn't know it from his writing.
One chapter he devoted to criticism of text books chosen for elementary schools and I would love to have an argument with him about some of his criticisms. He apparently would like for the rigors of science to be introduced to the grade school children and I am just not sure he understands developmental psychology and how challenging that might be for public schools to fund. But I can't carry on a one sided argument here. There were a couple of other points at which I wanted to argue with him which is why I consider the book to be thought provoking. In general it was an enjoyable and informative read.
The last essay, "Cargo Cult Science," ought to be read by everyone at least once a year, to keep us all honest in reaching our conclusions when we think seriously about things. At the end he says, "So I have just one wish for you -- the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, of financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom."
You do not need to understand the science to appreciate Feynman’s memoirs and his insights into how science works and how it doesn’t. I heartily recommend this for all serious and not-so-serious physics students.
Richard had a curiosu mind, honest and straightforward. He didn't really give a damm about anyone else's feelings. Understanding the world around was key, vital and people didn't need to get precious about it. He'd happily admit he was wrong if that ever happened. He frequently comments on how he didn't understand something straightaway, and how he often felt a fake when offered or promoted positions of responsability. If Feynman feels that way I'm sure us ordinary people can cope with little doubt!
There are some great scenes surrounding the Atomic bomb Manhatten project. ANd his frequent irritation with all the attention his Nobel Prize got him. I would have liked a nit more detail on the science behind that as it was barely mentioned. I could have coped with a lot more science in general. But this is the popular face of Feynmen. Living and free thinking - logically thinking through and understanding everything around him.
I'm sure modern feminists will be outraged at his attitude to women - he goes on great quests to try and understand their behavior, just looking for ways to have sex. I read it as commentary on the times as they were then. There is no explanation from Feynman, no attempt to cast historical cultures in todays lights. A lot of the set-up for formal dances, introductions etc, seems very odd now. It was the changing of cultures from the old way to the more current interactions. I don't think Feynman himself thought women were in anyway inferior, it certainly didn't come across that way. But there are few instances of him dealing with them at a professional level.
At times it is very funny. But ther eis little personal emotion in it. He describes making time to visit his terminally ill wife, briefly, amd after that there are just names he associates with rather than the depth of emotion that must have been there. I did feel that this was a censored public account of his life, and that there were far more riotious stories that could have been told!
It was interesting reading - how someone so intelligent looks at the world and is just another guy most of the time.
This book offers a great insight into a real, authentic life of a renowned physicist. This book is a testimony to that fact that fame obscures and overshadows the actual lives of many people. Feynman account goes beyond science, to public issues, bawdy pranks, and how even feynman spent a two years disengaged and detached from physics.
Although Feynman may not have been as influential in public spheres as he was in physics, and although people like Bertrand Russell present a more favorable example of combining science and arts, this book relates a very interesting human and scientific story.