Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

I recently finished reading “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” – Adventures of a Curious Character by the late and famed Physicist Richard P. Feynman – Winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. I first came across Richard through a series of lectures in which he was explaining what Science is. He immediately captivated me in his ability to clearly and simply articulate even the most complex of subjects.

Albert R. Hibbs, a senior member of the scientific staff at Caltech sums up this book perfectly in his introduction to it:

I hope these won’t be the only memoirs of Richard Feynman. Certainly the reminiscences here give a true picture of much of his character—his almost compulsive need to solve puzzles, his provocative mischievousness, his indignant impatience with pretension and hypocrisy, and his talent for one-upping anybody who tries to one-up him! This book is great reading: outrageous, shocking, still warm and very human. For all that, it only skirts the keystone of his life: science. We see it here and there. as background material in one sketch or another, but never as the focus of his existence, which generations of his students and colleagues know it to be. Perhaps nothing else is possible. There may be no way to construct such a series of delightful stories about himself and his work: the challenge and frustration, the excitement that caps insight, the deep pleasure of scientific understanding that has been the wellspring of happiness in his life.

On Feynman’s drive to solve puzzles:

That’s a puzzle drive. It’s what accounts for my wanting to decipher Mayan hieroglyphics, for trying to open safes. I remember in high school, during first period a guy would come to me with a puzzle in geometry, or something which had been assigned in his advanced math class. I wouldn’t stop until I figured the damn thing out—it would take me fifteen or twenty minutes. But during the day, other guys would come to me with the same problem, and I’d do it for them in a flash. So for one guy, to do it took me twenty minutes, while there were five guys who thought I was a super-genius.

On the importance of common language:

I thought my symbols were just as good, if not better, than the regular symbols—it doesn’t make any difference what symbols you use—but I discovered later that it does make a difference. Once when I was explaining something to another kid in high school, without thinking I started to make these symbols, and he said, “What the hell are those?” I realized then that if I’m going said, ‘ I realized then that if I’m going to talk to anybody else, I’ll have to use the standard symbols, so I eventually gave up my own symbols.

On innovating in the real world:

I thought that was perfect, but the boss came by one day, and she wanted to answer the phone, and she couldn’t figure it out— too complicated. “What are all these papers doing? Why is the telephone on this side? Why don’t you . . . raaaaaaaa!” I tried to explain—it was my own aunt—that there was no reason not to do that, but you can’t say that to anybody who’s smart, who runs a hotel! I learned there that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world.

On the team assembled at Los Alamos:

It was such a shock to me to see that a committee of men could present a whole lot of ideas, each one thinking of a new facet. while remembering what the other fella said, so that, at the end. the decision is made as to which idea was the best—summing it all up—without having to say it three times. These were very great men indeed.

On being direct:

Then the son told me what happened. The last time he was there, Bohr said to his son, “Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.” I was always dumb in that way. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried about the nhvsics. If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy. If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition.

On the importance of validation:

Since then I never pay any attention to anything by “experts.” I calculate everything myself. When people said the quark theory was pretty good, I got two Ph.D.s, Finn Ravndal and Mark Kislinger, to go through the whole works with me, just so I could check that the thing was really giving results that fit fairly well, and that it was a significantly good theory. I’ll never make that mistake again, reading the experts’ opinions. Of course, you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do. and that’s the end of you.

On simplicity and scientific integrity:

If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing—and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision. One example of the principle is this: If you’ve made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish both kinds of results.

On a concluding note:

It is very dangerous to have such a policy in teaching—to  teach students only how to get certain results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity. 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, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s