"Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!" : adventures of a curious character

by Richard Phillips Feynman

Paper Book, 1997

Status

Available

Publication

New York : W.W. Norton, 1997

Description

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.

User reviews

LibraryThing member John
Feynman was an American physicist who shared the Nobel Prize in 1965 for work leading to the establishment of the modern theory of quantum electrodynamics. He worked at Los Alamos, and in 1957 he and Gell-Mann proposed the theory of the weak nuclear force; also with Gell-Mann he hypothesized the existence of the quark, a more fundamental type of elementary particle than then known.

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!
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LibraryThing member PoeticJaffaCake
And no, he isn't.

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.
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LibraryThing member miketroll
Fascinating, often hilarious autobiographical episodes from the great physicist. Feynman is always worth the reader’s time for his warmth, wit and wisdom, honesty, humility, and great good humour. But when it comes to women….every now and then he makes you wonder whether he was really such a nice guy.
LibraryThing member LorenIpsum
I knew embarrassingly little about Feynman the scientist when I picked up this book; having now read it, I remain woefully ignorant. But I *did* learn something about Feynman the man: I don't much care for him.

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.
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LibraryThing member LisaMaria_C
I can't say I loved this--and I wanted and expected to. People whose judgement I respect adored it, and when I was a teen I devoured science books, and here are the memoirs of a Nobel-prize winning physicist who hobnobbed with Einstein and Planck and worked on the Manhattan Project! And the book is supposed to be funny and witty!

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.
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LibraryThing member DirtPriest
And then there was this gem. Now, in all honesty I tend to stick to genre stuff that can be classified as good scifi or decent scifi or whatever the genre is. Rarely do I read some lousy book, and I almost always enjoy what I read. I say this because most of my reviews have to be taken with a grain of salt, if you don't like reading, say fantasy stories or histories, just because I think a book is outstanding that doesn't mean that it is great literature. More that it is an enjoyable example of its field.

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.
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LibraryThing member fdholt
Richard Feynman was one of the most interesting and talented physicists of the twentieth century. He won the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics. He worked on the atomic bomb at Los Alamos and taught students at Cornell and Caltech. In Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman! : adventures of a curious character Feynman talks about his life and work. But not what you may expect! He is irreverent and funny, a musician (the frigideira was his main instrument but he played other percussion instruments), a safecracker (see the story on file cabinets), budding artist, and generally nice person. He describes great scientists of the day like Einstein and Bohr, Jimmy the Greek, and students. There are travels to Japan and to Brazil, interactions with the new computers, and nights in bars. Feynman also covers things like how textbooks for students in elementary/secondary grades are selected (you won’t believe it), the Nobel Prize, and languages. There is also mathematics and science, Feynman’s great love.

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.… (more)
LibraryThing member delphica
(#22 in the 2007 book challenge)

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.

Grade: C-
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.
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LibraryThing member maneekuhi
Before you read this book, do yourself a favor and watch a youtube clip of RF giving a speech. Listen for at least 5 minutes. It won't take much to absorb his rather unique style of speaking into your consciousness and this will greatly enhance this first person account of his life experiences. Besides making a significant contribution to the Manhattan Project at Los Alomos, and receiving a Nobel Prize, Feynman (pronounced fine-men) constantly developed many varied interests and pursued them passionately. If asked to give a one word description of the guy, I guess I would use that word - passionate. There are many interesting passages in the book, and one of the things I really admired about him was his broad view of education, particularly during his graduate studies. While at Princeton, he met a number of students and professors in departments other than his physics major, and sat in on many of their courses just because he found the subject interesting. And because he was a brilliant guy, he caught on quickly to basic issues and often made his unique contributions in those fields as well. And it was interesting times - he was a student in the 30's, at Los Alamos during WWll and taught for years afterwards (and played the drums, and marched at Rio's Carnival, etc.) He mentions his wives briefly but says next to nothing about his kids. And he had a fondness for women and met a number at clubs and bars. Not my expectations of a physicist, but an incredibly interesting guy. What he was not, was a great writer. When he described problems and solutions, he raced over the details much like his mind thought. It was impossible to get a clear grasp of what he was trying to communicate in many of these passages. But then he always preferred speaking to audiences with a depth of knowledge in the field and was frustrated with those that couldn't keep pace. A great guy but I wouldn't want him for a professor in one of my EE classes. Four stars is probably a generous rating, but if you only get through a portion of this book you will be glad that you got to experience and know a little bit about Feynman.… (more)
LibraryThing member reading_fox
Sort of autobiogrpahy of the life of the famous physicist. Doesn't actually contain much science at all, mostly it s justa series of tales of what he was doing besides science throughout his life. It is an intersting cultural snapshot of life in the US through the mid 1900s.

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.
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LibraryThing member maggie1944
Enjoyable, thought provoking but a little bit dated, this book was read for my book group. I am looking forward to talking about it but I don't know if I would have finished reading it were I "on my own". Richard Feynman is certainly an unique character, and probably a fine scientist. He certainly does a good job toward the end of the book explaining what integrity in the field of science must look like and he clearly has no patience with people who fudge their research to assure funding, or curry favor. I enjoyed reading some of the "inside" stuff about the famous labs developing the atomic bomb at the end of world war two; also, the experiments he conducted on himself in sensory deprivation tanks were interesting. For the most part he avoiding talking about physics which I would not, or could not understand.

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.
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LibraryThing member ewalrath
This book suffered for years for having been recommended to me by a prize asshole. But it's truly an interesting book for a look into a lost world of society and science. I really do very poor reviews. I'm sorry. But his writing is humorous, the events are entertaining, and his insufferable arrogance mellows to a sort of sweet joy at the life he's managed to live.… (more)
LibraryThing member mthelibrarian
I've long been meaning to read the famous Caltech physics professor's book, which seems to have been read years ago by everyone I know who attended Caltech. I listened to it on audible audiobook, and found it laugh-out-loud funny. Feyman discussed his capers at MIT where he went for undergrad, Princeton (grad school), Los Alamos, Cornell (where he taught), Brazil, Caltech, Japan and more. He picked locks at Los Alamos, played drums in a Caltech play, took drawing classes and had his own show at Caltech, and even helped in the development of a ballet in San Francisco. One essay discussed how it was NOT a good thing that he won the Nobel, in that he was no longer able to just pop into schools to discuss physics with high school clubs. Instead it became a "big deal" when he went places and he would have to give big lectures to people who knew nothing about physics. The chapter late in the book about his participation on math textbook selection committee in Los Angeles should be required reading for every current textbook selection committee in the country.… (more)
LibraryThing member wrk1
Short anecdotes, three to twenty pages long, about life as a student, as a very junior member of the team that built the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, as a physicist rising through the world of the best physicists in the world during the 40's through the 70's.

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."… (more)
LibraryThing member deslni01
It's not often a simple title and subtitle truly encompass an entire work. "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" (Adventures of a Curious Character) does just that and more. It introduces two important concepts to Feynman's book and life. On the one hand, Feynman loved entertainment and was always the life of the party, in some form or another. For example, telling people at a party he could correctly identify any book picked up by a person merely by smelling it (and making it a challenge). Throughout his life he found ways to be the center of attention wherever he went, and hilarious results followed. The other hand details all of his adventures, whether they be funny or not, and how truly curious of a character Feynman was. He was hand-picked by Nils and Aage Bohr, while visiting Los Alamos, to talk physics to because he was the only one who would actually discuss physics, not stand mouth-agape in awe. He had no problems with authority, and telling authoritative figures they were wrong - and this played a tremendous role in his life. He dabbled in the arts; he played bongo drums; he frequented a strip club (and defending it in court); he got into bathroom bar fights. These are just the tip of the iceberg of the adventures Feynman found himself in.

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.
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LibraryThing member Capfox
I can't very well say when the first time I heard about Richard Feynman was. He's long been a hero of my father's, and he'd show up in unexpected conversations occasionally. I think I found this a bit interesting when I was a kid - why does he keep cropping up? I've heard and read more about him since then, and I read James Gleick's biography of him when I was in Japan, but somehow, despite seeing this book on our shelves every day for years growing up, I never actually gave it a try until recently. And it's definitely an interesting read, both for what's on the page, and what's not.

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.
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LibraryThing member Robin_Goodfellow
If you want a little science, a little humour, a little entertainment, and a whole lot of fun working up a psychological profile on a very interesting guy, then this book is for you. Feynman deceives others (as a game / challenge), deceives himself, and all the while espouses the virtues of non-deceipt, but you just can't help liking the guy. A fascinating study in human nature and intellectualism.… (more)
LibraryThing member mamzel
Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman, is terminally curious. From a young age he was always figuring out how things worked, what made things happen. He also likes to tease his friends and pull pranks. From the waitress in a coffee shop when he was a college student to the people at Los Alamos, no one was safe.

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.
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LibraryThing member jolee
Certainly an interesting read. Feynman was a "curious character" in both senses of the phrase - interested in the way the world works and odd.
LibraryThing member ari.joki
Beautiful work of self-promotion. Feynman building his own legend.
LibraryThing member neontapir
Feynman is my hero! I aspire to be so forthcoming and expressive.
LibraryThing member phrontist
Feynman's writing style and approach to life are admirable.
LibraryThing member psiloiordinary
This guy has reached the highest accolades of scientific achievement but all the time managed to maintain his feet on the ground. Sometimes he almost reminds me of the hero in "The curious incident of the dog in the night-time". He is very, very bright, insatiably curious and yet, at the same time, incredibly naive and unknowing.

This gets him into lots of scrapes and adventures from which he always emerges wiser and with his own special brand of moral integrity fully intact.

We get behind the scene glimpses of the Manhattan project and his major contributions to science in a very special person to person view.

Inspiration to squeeze everything you can out of life.

I loved this book.
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LibraryThing member cmbohn
This book was a collection of anecdotes by Richard Feynman. By turns extremely funny and accessible, then technical and confusing, it was still a fun read. It was just a little uneven. Then there was the long story involving a topless bar near his house. It wasn't explicit or anything, but since I was listening to this as an audiobook with my kids in the car, it made things a little tricky. I wasn't completely crazy about the reader either, but I still enjoyed it.… (more)
LibraryThing member GoldenBeep
This is the autobiography of Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman. Although I have something of a math background, there is nothing in the book that requires any real math or science background. It is riddles with hilarious anecdotes about his life as well as some interesting pieces of history. This is a great book for students who need to read a biography but don't want to drone through endless monotonous pages. However, I would recommend it to anyone as a wonderfully entertaining story.… (more)

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