Sunday, September 30, 2007

A master of science: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, is not an auto-biographical book of this great scientist. It is a book of anecdotes about this great physicist and scientist, containing many stories transcribed from recordings made by his friend Ralph Leighton, in a period of 7 years of drumming with Richard Feynman. The person they describe, Richard Phillips Feynman (May 11, 1918 – February 15, 1988) was an extra-ordinary person. He had jointly won the Nobel Prize in physics in 1965 for his work on quantum electrodynamics. He was also very famous for being part of the panel that investigated the disaster over the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, an incident that cast a gloom over the US space program for many years. Feynman actually had a public demonstration of the weakness of the material of the valve that caused the disaster.
To hear about such a physicist, you wold tend to think that this would be a normal persona for a scientist and professor of science, namely a dry person, totally immersed in science and far removed from other sort of emotions. In fact, the real Feynman was more of a teacher as well, who found great inspiration in trying to explain things, and explain them well. The book does a lot to present the true nature of Richard Feynman, who was a very colorful personality, and whose death in 1988 was a true loss.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman

Feynman was of Jewish origins, but not particularly observant. The earliest we hear from his is his tinkering in the house with wires, electricity, radios, speakers, and other such contraptions; trying to experiment more and more and invent new things. From reading about the early Feynman in the book, it would seem quite apparent that he had a natural urge towards practical engineering, and it was also quite clear that his family was not rich.
The book highlights the prankster that Richard Feynman starts to become, explaining the pranks that he starts to develop as he grows up, with a good enumeration of the many capers and mischiefs that he starts to deploy in college. You see his sense of humour, and you start to warm upto the person that he was. You also see how his career starts to develop, and how he was a personality not driven by the need to do better and better in a career sort of sense, but more in terms of developing better learning. At the end of the day, Feynman's most important teachings might come as: 'Never take yourself too seriously' (as other reviewers have already commented), 'Always keep an open mind' and 'Focus your efforts on what really matters'.
You also read about his attempts to get involved with the opposite sex, and that makes for some interesting reading. You also read about his humanness, when you see how he really did not enjoy his humanity courses while in college. I don't want to talk too much more about the anecdotes, since those are the best reading on your own. However, the impression that I got after reading this book was about a genius walking this earth.

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