I’m still going on The eye: a natural history, but right now I’m going to talk about Richard Feynman’s autobiography, Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman! (I must confess that I’m one of those people who keeps several books on the go at once – The eye is on the bedside table, but Feynman’s book is what I read while on the exercycle at the gym.)
I’ve been meaning to read Surely you’re joking for ages, having already heard so many anecdotes about Richard Feynman. So I knew he had an insatiable curiosity about how things worked (maths, the Mayan language, bongo drumming, picking locks…), & that he’d taught his little sister to count by letting her pull his hair when she got the answer right. And when I read the introduction to this book, I wished he’d been my teacher. Albert Hibbs, once one of Feynman’s students remembers
how it was when you walked into one of his lectures. He would be standing in front of the hall smiling at us all as we came in, his fingers tapping out a complicated rhythm on the black top of the demonstration bench… As latecomers took their seats, he picked up the chalk and began spinning it rapidly through his fingeres in a manner of a professional gambler palying with a poker chip, still smiling happily as if at some secret joke. And then – still smiling – he talked to us about physics, his diagrams and equations helping us to share his understanding. It was no secret joke that brought the smile and the sparkle in his eye. It was physics. The joy of physics! The joy was contagious.
I smiled when I read that, & I’ve smiled at something on nearly every page that I’ve read so far. This was someone with a deep and abiding curiosity about life, and who got both joy and enjoyment from indulging that curiosity. And enthusiastic! Feynman tells of a time when a professor of psychology was to visit his college, & had indicated that he’d like a few volunteers for a demonstration of hypnosis. Hypnosis! Oh wow! The Dean of the college explained at some length what would be involved, while Feynman got more & more excited – & more & more worried that he wouldn’t be chosen, as there were so many other students in the hall who, he was sure, were all equally keen. Finally the Dean asked for volunteers.
I raised my hand and shot out of my seat, screaming as loud as I could, to make sure that he would hear me: "MEEEEEEEEEEE!"
He heard me all right, because there wasn’t another soul… it was very embarassing. [His] immediate reaction was "Yes, of course, I knew you would volunteer, Mr Feynman, but I was wondering if there would be anybody else."
Obviously Feynman’s teachers knew him very well indeed by this time!
Not only is this book fun to read (& an easy read, as it’s essentially a whole series of shortish anecdotes), but there is a lot to learn from it: about critical thinking; about not being afraid to take a chance now & then, or to admit that you might be wrong about something; about how easy it can be to fool people; about human nature.
And I see there’s a second volume to look forward to…
R.P. Feynman (1985) Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman! Norton.