on June 16, 2004
The follow-up to the successful, "Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman" this book offers four pretty distinct parts.
First section describes how his father taught him to think about the world and his father's ambition to make young Richard a scientist. The end of the book is Feyman's case for the importance of science. In between we get the sad, but sweet story of his first wife and the utterly compelling story of his time on the committee investigating the challenger explosion. It was my favorite part of the book.
The description of how government committees decide facts and make recommendations was eye opening. It was the best description of how these things work that I've ever read. Feynman was constantly up against a committee chairman that wanted to keep everyone in a room asking questions of experts. Feynman didn't like that setup. He wanted to travel out to NASA and talk to engineers, so he did.
Going to Huston and Canaveral, Feynman learned something about the nature of NASA that probably goes for any big organization. He found that NASA was a unified force when their goal was putting a man of the moon. Information was shared freely and appreciated at every level. Once that goal was met NASA became compartmentalized.
Leaders at the top spent their time reassuring Congress that NASA would achieve their goals with low costs and high safety. Engineers at the bottom realized that this wasn't entirely possible. The middle managers didn't want to hear the challenges because they would be forced to report it to the top bosses who didn't want to hear it. It was much easier for top bosses to paint a rosy picture to Congress if they were unaware of the actual challenges of making it work. The end result was that top bosses said that the likelihood of a mission death was 1-100,000 while engineers on the ground felt that the likelihood was more like 1-300.
Feynman concludes that maybe the shuttle program was a bad idea. It could never live up to the ambitious projections of the leaders and the American public was being lied to. NASA should be honest with the American people, Feynman thought, then Congress and voters can decide if they are getting enough for their money. It was a surprisingly thing to hear from an advocate of science and discovery. But Feynam reckoned that the amount of science and discovery has been little compared to the cost. He complained years after the first shuttle launch he still hadn't read any significant experiments in scientific journals.
In all, I liked this book a little better than "Surely You're Joking." It was a little more thought provoking than those fun tales.
Richard Feynman is one of the most famous twentieth century Physicists. He is one of those rare scientists who have managed to go beyond the success in the narrow confines of his field of research and become a public celebrity. A big part of this success comes from his persona which combined incredible brilliance with the irreverent and down-to-earth attitude to most problems in life, be they "big" ones like working on the atomic bomb, or the everyday ones that almost all of us are familiar with. It's the latter ones and his quirky and unorthodox approach to them that made Feynman endearing to the general public.
His earlier book "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman" was a classic and an inspiration to generations of young scientists who were shown that you can have lots of fun while pursuing a life in science. I myself had read it in single sitting, and had completely been mesmerized by Feynman's wit and irreverent attitude. "What Do You Care What Other People Think" is a further collection of stories and anecdotes from his life. Some of these had been told by others over the years, but in this book they all come together in a single volume as told by Feynman himself. Some of the events and stories presented come from the last few years of his life, and it is hard not to feel the poignancy of the fact that these were some of his last thoughts on subjects and situations that he cared about.
Almost half of the book is dedicated to the investigation of the Challenger disaster. Feynman was on the presidential commission that investigated that disaster, and here we get a full insight into what had been going on during commission's session. Many reports have made it seem that Feynman had single handedly figured out the true cause of the disaster - the faulty o-rings that were not meant to be used in really low temperatures. In this book he sets the record straight and explains that although he was the public face that brought attention to the o-rings, there had been many people behind the scenes who had suspected a problem with them for quite a while. This part of the book is also a very useful and revealing glimpse into the workings of a big governmental and scientific agency like NASA.
The book concludes with few musings on the responsibility of science for social problems. In these musings Feynman turns uncharacteristically philosophical, even almost spiritual. He might not have been the most sophisticated thinkers in these matters, but his instincts were very acute and well worth listening to.
All of those who appreciate Feynman's work and brilliance will be grateful for this honest and easy-going narrative. It is also hard not to think that with Feynman's passing a whole era of Physics had come to an end. Those of us who think that somewhere along the way theoretical Physics had lost its way and had become a caricature of its former self, may wonder if all of that could have been avoided had Feynman lived for another ten years or so. We'll just never really know.
on May 4, 2003
This book is a continuation and addendum of sorts to Mr. Feynman's first biography, "Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman". The two major stories of the book involve Mr. Feynman's enormously influential first wife, Arlene and the second story involves Mr. Feynman's work in the Challenger disaster investigation. Sprinkled around these two major bookends are other humorous adventures and observations about a trip to Japan, being labeled a sexist pig by feminists, and hotel hunting in Europe to name just a few.
The Challenger investigation takes up a sizable chunk of the book and is sometimes filled with drier material. But the compelling event and frustrating insight into government bureaucracy holds some interest to make up for the technical specifications.
The first part of the book where his wife Arlene is discussed is so touching and powerful that the reader will be hard pressed not to get teary-eyed.
As noted in the review about the first biography, Mr. Feynman was an extremely curious person who explored things out of simple curiosity. His life's quest was nothing simpler than a desire to understand Nature. All the while, he tried to have the best time he could. Hopefully this reader can take away at least a little bit of that.
on April 11, 2003
Not as entertaining as its predecessor, "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman", but still quite entertaining in its own way, more than half of this book is devoted to describing the experiences of Feynman as he took part in the committee investigating the Shuttle Challenger disaster. As anyone who's read the first book can imagine, setting Feynman loose on a governmental committee is not exactly a recipe for smooth interaction; what it IS a recipe for is getting far more straight answers uncovered than the bureaucrats want.
Not to say that this book isn't funny, but if you're looking for a chuckle, read the earlier book. If, on the other hand, you're in the mood for being reminded, in a fairly lighthearted way, just why it is that bureaucracies are not a good thing, this is the book for you. In addition to the section on the Challenger investigation, there are a few biographical anecdotes, as well as a closing lecture on "The Value of Science", all of which are good reading.
on February 1, 2003
This is being written in the evening after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. While all the would-be experts go onto Larry King and Good Morning America and try out for the Olympic Conclusion High Jump Team (while the real experts -- and I just got off the phone with one -- have a pretty good idea what it was, and turn down same interviews), right now, this is a good time for those who are interested to read the background of the previous Shuttle disaster. All of Part II, about 2/3 of this book, is titled "Mr. Feynman goes to Washington: Investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger Disaster." Incredible, absolutely true, and only the tip of the iceberg, according to somebody who was there. There's a pattern to this sort of thing, a combination of hubris and unwillingness to face reality, and Feynman's book lays it bare like nothing else I can think of. The only other document that comes close in my mind (at least, as I recall the details) is the old "Far Side" cartoon, showing a rope-and-tire swing over a tiny little pond. There's a big chunk of the tire missing, and a shark fin cruising around below. Two kids on the bank, one says to the other "You go tell Billy's mom, and I'll go look for another tire." We've seen this before (Shuttle, Concorde), we'll see it again, but meanwhile Feynman's account is a must-read. You will not be disappointed.
on December 12, 2002
This book is the follow-up to Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character and I recommend that it should be read only after reading that volume.
The book is organized as a series of loosely related chapters that illustrate Feynman's unique perspective and his ways of interacting with the world. It is less personal than the preceding book in that some of the chapters are more about science-related topics and less about Feynman. Some of the chapters fill in details that were introduced in "Surely You're Joking" while others cover new topics. His description of the government sponsored independent commission that investigated the space shuttle Challenger explosion is revelatory both for its insight into the process and workings of such commissions (and Feynman's frustrations with them) and for his description of his own style of investigatory technique which we all can apply.
The reader does not have to be a scientist, engineer, or a skeptic to appreciate this book and I recommend it as informative, amusing and well worth reading.
on August 8, 2002
Not a bad book, but not quite five star.
The first chapter "The Making of a Scientist" is from the
Horizon[BBC]/Nova[PBS] documentary The Pleasure of Finding Things
Out. I very much enjoyed watching Chris Sykes documentary, and
he went on to write the book No Ordinary Genius (also another
Sykes documentary about Feynman). I mention all this because
the book, and chapter is unable to convey Feynman's Brooklyn
accent (that really adds).
Feynman hated writing, and most of this text was transcribed and
edited, so it has that feel. Some people will like that, and
as Sykes notes: others won't (poor English). The best way to
understand Feynman is to read his three volumes, and that's not
easy (and they are written in this same style with hard hard).
The Challenger Chapter is very important and stands on its own
merits. Enough said about that.
"For a successful technology,
reality must take precedence over public relations,
for Nature cannot be fooled."
Appendix F, Personal Observations on the Reliability of the Shuttle
-- R. P. Feynman
on July 27, 2002
Here is another book of wonderful biographical anecdotes of one of the most intriguing scientists who has ever lived. However, those who are looking for merely a continuing edition of the tremendously popular (not to mention hilarious!) SURELY YOU'RE JOKING MR. FEYNMAN should take note: this present work does not qualify as that.
To be sure, there are a handful of chapters which would fit right into SYJMF. However, 2 major sections cover some exceptionally serious topics which are hardly material for Feynman's typical humor. One section details his love for his first wife as well as her untimely terminal illness. The other covers his work on the commission to disinter the technical problems that led to the explosion of the Space Shuttle CHALLENGER in 1986. These major sections encompass roughly 3/4 of the book.
The chapter on his wife's suffering is especially poignant and touched me very deeply. Feynman was a man whose love and compassion matched his intellect. I could not but feel empathy and admiration for the way he took care of his bride, knowing all along that she would not live long. His decision to be straight with her about her condition, instead of feeding her some fairy-tale story about how she had a good chance of recovery, was both painful and edifying to read.
The section on the CHALLENGER goes into great detail on everything that went wrong that fateful day in '86 as the nation watched the disaster on TV. To this day, I have not seen a television documentary cover this story as I think it should be covered.
I recently saw a special on the CHALLENGER on the DISCOVERY channel. It did an excellent job of focusing on how the engineers at THIOKOL were screaming at NASA not to launch, well into the wee hours of the morning of the catastrophe. However, what the special omitted was the cover-up and closing-of-ranks that NASA did AFTER the accident. To me, NASA's behavior after the fact was even more reprehensible than its carelessness before the launch.
It was for the reason of politics that then-president Ronald Reagan personally requested that Feynman be on-board the investigation committee [a committee that also included the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Sally Ride, among others]. Reagan knew that Feynman would get to the bottom of the matter (which he did) and that Feynman did not care for the politics of making NASA "look good" (which he didn't).
With this in mind, even people who are not interested in Richard Feynman, but are curious about what happened to the CHALLENGER would gain much by reading this book. Feynman explains his thorough, logical methodology and how it rubbed many people the wrong way. His straight-forward and honest disclosures of NASA's gerrymandering created much animosity between himself and NASA exec William Rogers (who, it seems, was more interested in NASA's image than getting to the heart of the matter). For those who are interested in further reading on the CHALLENGER topic, I would recommend NO ORDINARY GENIUS: THE ILLUSTRATED FEYNMAN ...
For Feynman enthusiasts, this book is vintage Feynman - a can't miss. As a bonus, the center of the book has photographs from his life, as well as some of his sketches. The book is equally recommended for people who wonder about what "really" happened to the CHALLENGER, and why it happened. NASA aficionados may be disappointed in the work as it exposes (truthfully) all of the fudge-factors, apathy for safety issues and faulty reasoning NASA used with the efficacy of launching CHALLENGER on time and preserving its positive image after the fact.
on January 18, 2002
A lot of books written by scientific people claim to be "down-to-earth" and for the "layman" but end up creeping into the obscure. Not so here. Feynman starts with his feet planted firmly on the ground and never strays.
The first few stories range from the serious to the light-hearted. From the pain of losing his wife to being invited to speak at a funeral for a man whom he can't remember. These accounts give you a good look at the ability of Feynman to convey a story and make it interesting. The majority of the book however is given to the time he spent on the committee that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Using no nonsense, straight-forward writing he takes you through the process of how he and the others, despite a lot of bureaucratic red tape, managed to find out what went wrong on that fateful day. What could very well be a dry and uninspiring subject becomes quite informative and engaging through his telling.
This is my first book by Feynman, but having absorbed the whole thing in one sitting it surely won't be my last.
on July 22, 2001
The title of this review may sound as a little bit of an overstatement, given Leonardo Da Vinci's stature, but it is a very close way to depict this distinguished North American physicist who, among MANY other things, won the Nobel Prize, worked in Project Manhattan (at Los Alamos lab) and was part of the team that investigated (and discovered) the cause of the explosion of the Challenger. If this could already be enough to elevate him a lot, you'll discover through this book how his life was constituted by one of the most interesting and rich cultural mosaics one can imagine.
Always struggling to look at things "differently", Feynman became a very sought-after educator, teaching at the United States most prestigious universities, as well as other schools in places like Brazil.
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'.
If you enjoy this book (which I'm sure you will), check out what could be considered the first part of it: 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!' : Adventures of a Curious Character; as well as Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman's Last Journey - both, highly recommendable.