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on May 20, 2004
To borrow the phrase from MTV this is Feynman unplugged.
I really enjoyed his commencement talk that is last chapter in the book. He exhorts his listeners to create real empirically supportable results in their research. There is a new kind of scientist in our midst that I feel Dr. Feynman would have detested. This kind of scientist is less interested in the reality of what is being studied and more interested in advancing a certain agenda. There is a great web site (junkscience^com) that catalogues many of these scientific gunslingers.
This book is a retrospective that begins at the beginning and finishes in 1974 (many years before his report on the Challenger accident). It describes his early years working in a hotel, going to MIT, working at Los Alamos, and teaching at Cornell and Caltech. There are many demonstrations of his wicked wit and quirky (quarky?) sense of humor. He is quick to seize the opportunity to use his wit as is shown when he hides a door in his fraternity house.
This is a fun read!
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on September 18, 2002
Although I'd heard of Feynman for years now--people I know were excited by the Feynman Lectures volumes--I didn't really know who he was. Oh, I could probably have given you the fact that he was a physicist, and maybe that he had won the Nobel prize, and just recently Jill told me about a Feynman anecdote that she had read by Stephen Jay Gould. After Surely You're Joking, I know much more about Feynman, and why he interests people. As far from the stereotype of the scientist that you can get, yet still having some geeky characteristics that he wasn't afraid to admit to, Surely You're Joking is a portrait of the man in his own words. In fact, the best way to approach this book is as if you had stumbled on to it in a dimly-lit bar, sat down next to it, exchanging turns buying drinks and talking about each other. Just like a conversation, some things are funny, some things don't make sense, and--as a one-sided conversation--they all revolve around a singe subject.
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on February 16, 2004
I was given this book by my CIO (one of those guys who proudly label themselves as a "nerd") who told me to "read this book, it's rad". We're both voracious readers, so I knew this would be a great book, but I wasn't prepared for it to be such an "important" one. But important it is. This book details the life of a remarkably simple man driven by his passion for the truth, the sensory beauty of life, and the many mysteries of nature.
Ok, so getting a Nobel Prize and (for the most part) spawning the science of Modern Quantum clearly puts you in the category of "interesting", what really stands R. Feyman out from the rest of his peers is the exceptional balance he managed to strike in his life between Productive (Science, Manhattan Project, etc.) and Sensory (Travel, Musical talent, wife/women).
Stories of him being the only scientist at Trinity (where the first atom bomb he worked on was detonated) to get out from the protected bunker so he could "see" the detonation (jumped behind the glass in his truck because he WAS PRETTY SURE the gamma and X-rays wouldn't harm his eyes) and him leading a protest against the shutting down of a local strip bar (where he would spend many of his final days doing drawings), this book details the life of one of the bravest, most accomplished, and dynamic men of our time.
A very worthwile read for those who are looking for a quick entertaining read, or for a hero. I think you'll find them both in this book.
Hope this was helpful.
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on September 16, 2003
I always thougth that theoretical physicists were these super smart guys sitting around the black board drawing weird diagrams of atom smashing and writing math forumulas that predict that life cannot exist and pondering the meaning of things like gravity and magnetism. Now the truth is out, they are weird, but in an normal sort of insane way. They have these great insights and then spend the rest of their lives banging away at the great unsolvable problems like "what do women want" and "where to find a hotel in city that's full up."
I really liked this book. It brings out the human side of Dr. Feynman. I've read his lectures on physics books and they are dry and full of stuff I've long forgotten. But after reading about his adventures with the California state school system in picking a science text book had me rolling on the ground laughing. As a student I always wondered how these bad textbooks got sent down to torment me and now I know. It surely wasn't Richard's fault!
Anyway a good read about the life of one who saw life through a different set of colored glasses.
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on January 8, 2004
It was a pleasure to read these collected stories from Feynman's life. Each story is entertaining and often humorous or enlightening. Most remarkable I think is how honest these stories are. Feynman includes some very strange stories - particularly one about him hanging out in Vegas and trying to pick up women - that seem a bit out of place. But I think that is part of the appeal of this book: it is a very honest look at Feynman's rich life.
In a way, Feynman reminds me of the title character from Oliver Sack's "An Anthropologist on Mars" about an autistic woman who describes herself as continuously observing human behavior like an anthropologist on Mars. Feynman is constantly trying to do experiments to see how other people respond, including many enjoyable practical jokes. Maybe humans were sort of like physics for him, and he was just trying to perturb the system and see how they worked.
The real message I got out of these stories was how Feynman was so willing to try everything - particularly the things he was not very good at. He's a bad artist, so he decides to learn how to draw and ends up getting his own art show. He's not very musical, so he learns to play drums and ends up recording the music for a ballet. He doesn't know any biology, so he starts learning and ends up doing experiments with JD Watson. In one section he delves into Mayan history and starts deciphering the codecs. In another memorable chapter he learns the art of safecracking while at Los Alamos. This book sort of inspires me to try something I stink at and see how much I can accomplish. For Feynman, it seems like there was nothing he couldn't do.
Overall I think you will be glad if you get this book. However, I also got the book "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" and that was not as enjoyable. It was more of a collection of lectures he gave and was less personal. There was also considerable overlap in the stories.
My only real complaint is that there was not enough science in the stories, but there are plenty of other books by Feynman for that (QED and Six Easy Pieces among others). So if you haven't been introduced to Dick Feynman's writing, do yourself a favor and get "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"
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on September 1, 2003
I developed an interest in (quantum) physics ever since reading Gary Zukhov's The Dancing Wu-Li Masters sometime in the '80s. I was mesmerised by the whole Shrodinger's Cat thought experiment; if these really smart people could have a little fun, then, by golly, the science can't be all that impossible to understand. Then I read Nick Herbert's Quantum Reality. More of the same...lots of counter-intuitive fun science that has little to do with how my world works [well, it has everything to do with how my world works, but I just don't get to experience it at a primary level]. The last thing I read was Brian Greenes's The Elegant Universe. I searched high and low for something stimulating, put in terms my little brain could understand. Nothing.
I had picked up Surely You're Joking on numerous occasions. But I deferred, simply because it was about the scientist instead of the science. I was interested in the science, not the people behind the science. I thought, 'A bunch of technically astute individuals who talk waaay above my technically incompetent level.'
It's too bad, really. The scientist behind the science is just as counter-intuitive and remarkable as the science. A master story teller, Feynman gives wonderful insight into the irreverent antics of one scientist at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. He gives the reader a layman's view of the world as it is from that of a brilliant thinker. Safe-cracker, ladies man, artist, anthropologist. Feynman will not disappoint in keeping you mesmerized by his antics and analysis. The book is an easy and comfortable read that might just inspire you to find that artist or physicist or lock-pick in you. Enjoy.
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on June 17, 2003
A friend recommended this book once, but after reading a few paragraphs, I did not find it very interesting and I moved on to something else. After a while he brought it up again and finally convinced me by reading me one whole chapter that made me laugh a lot. I am glad I finally gave in to this delightful and fascinating book.
It's been a long time since I have read a book which combines so perfectly humour, curiosity, intelligence, a very vivid language, and nice adventures of discovering the world.

Basically, the book speaks about the exploits of the Nobel Prize winner in Physics, Richard Feynman, an incredibly brilliant mind who was part of the research team that made the atomic bomb, but who doesn't know that if you put milk in your tea, you should not have lemon at the same time. Nor is he very good at socializing with women, yet he is a successful visiting professor at the most important universities in the US where he gives very challenging lectures.

These contrasting features make Richard Feynman a very appealing and lively character, and his book is a series of hilarious events that make you laugh out loud. He is so smart that he can break a safe in less than 15 minutes and so he made a habit of playing tricks on his colleagues by breaking the secret codes for their safes.

A multilateral personality, he studied also biology, art (he took art lessons and sold a few paintings), music. He was a scientist but not the stiff type; on the contrary, he was a very funny personality, full of sense of humour, with a childlike curiosity who tells his story with an incredible sincerity, a free spirit and enjoyable character.

It is a book I highly recommend for different reasons: readers will have the chance to meet a rare and admirable personality in a narrative marked with good quality humour.
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on May 19, 2003
I just pulled Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman off my bookshelf for the first time in more than a year, and was immediately reminded of what an unusual, hilarious, compelling and intelligent book it is. I took it down for a friend to borrow, but before I would let it out of the house, I found time to re-re-read odd pages and passages, followed, of course, by a fair share of laughing out loud and shaking my head in wonder.
The book isn't a biography as much as it is a simple collection of anecdotes. But when the anecdotes come from somebody with the story telling ability, the smarts and the optimism of Mr. Feynman, then that is plenty.
To be fair, each time I re-read the book, it seems a little more dated -- not in the charming sense of old-fashioned values like wearing your best suit for a Sunday afternoon stroll and saving love letters in a box tied together by twine, but in the sense of context. We have to remember, for example, that the price Mr. Feynman paid for a bottle of champagne at one point would be a small fortune if it were stated in today's dollars, and that traveling from New York to Los Angeles was not something one could do on a moment's notice, as it is today. More seriously, Mr. Feynman's treatment of women -- as objects to be conquered and as the gender that "owes" men something in return for a couple of drinks or a dinner -- will today seem politically incorrect to people who dwell on those things.
But there is too much great stuff between the book's covers to let those kinds of minor problems stand in the way.
Of all the qualities Mr. Feynman shares about himself on the book's pages, the one that I like the most is his child-like curiosity: he seems to want to know everything how every thing works. Friends tell me I'm a bit like that myself and when I first made that connection I wondered if it was one of the reasons I was so enthralled by Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman -- and its follow-up, What Do You Care What Other People Think? -- starting from the moment I first picked it up and clear through many re-readings and many more years. But as I write it occurs to me that perhaps my personality developed that way in part because of my admiration for the characteristic in Mr. Feynman.
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on April 9, 2003
As far as Nobel Prize winners go, Mr. Feynman surely must be the most interesting of the lot. This autobiography is a remarkable journey from Feynman's youth through to his golden years. He mostly covers his professional life but does touch upon personal incidents (disease and death of his first wife).
Throughout his storied life, Mr. Feynman had worked on the Manhattan Project, lectured students on physics at premier universities, traveled and taught in Brazil and Japan, played the bongos and drums, frequented strip clubs, won a Nobel Prize, chased women, deciphered Mayan hieroglyphics and solved a space shuttle disaster mystery to name just a few adventures.
The books consists of individual stories that cover major sections of his life (college years, Manhattan Project years, etc.) Throughout these stories, Feynman presents himself as a fellow who effortlessly found himself in odd and amazing situations. For instance, while playing a tambourine-like instrument in Rio de Janeiro, Feynman ended up in the Carnival festivities partying through the streets. With other such incidents, Feynman is one who has lived a full life. I would have loved to have met such a unique individual. As such, this book is a wonderful starting point.
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on December 12, 2002
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman: the Adventures of a Curious Character provides insight into some of the thinking processes of a great man. The book is organized as a series of generally short chapters that each serve to illustrate elements of Feynman's personality and thinking style through different stories and experiences. He downplays the details of physics and math where he made serious contributions that resulted in a Nobel Prize and comes across as a thinking everyman (albeit a true polymath) who applied his organized thinking to every situation. He nearly always questioned that status quo and could learn something about topics ranging from hard science to human behavior.
Some of the chapters in Surely You're Joking made me laugh out loud. Others were interesting, how to pick locks for example, still others were unexpected and a little racy, how he enjoyed nightlife and music, and the story of his first wife could even be described as romantic.
I recommend this book as great reading, particularly for high school and college students, because it is interesting enough to hold one's attention, it gives a biography of a great thinker, and suggests that there are legitimate perspectives for looking at the world beyond those demonstrated in the popular press and media.
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