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 10, 1998
Joking, Mr. Feynman." The love story of his first marriage; the love story which relates to the rest of his life.
The stories he wrote in "Surely" were well polished, short and to the point, very much as he conveyed his pursuit of simpler presentations of the rudiments of physics.
This book, undoubtably disrupted by the accelerating decline of his health, is less polished, but is excellent when he describes his part in the determination of the Challenger disaster. [At one point he exclaims that the Challenger hearings are 'killing me'... speeding his death.] His further descriptions of his life with his first wife are also a wonderful and very human essay.
Feynman, with one exception, is the prime model of how a human being should approach life in its amazing totality. The ideas in this book are as much a part of that model as "Surely" and his "Introduction to Physics."
The title, by the way, was taken from words his first wife spoke about sixty years ago. Feynman had been placed in a situation where his presentation of himself - not his ideas - was of critical importance. His first wife, using those words, made it possible for him to ignore the presentation and pursue the ideas.
This book is about love of life, as are all his books.
on May 15, 2000
After wanting to read RF for a long time, I finally got a book. This was the first Feynman book I read. It has two parts, the first is mostly about Feynman's first wife Arlene and his friends when he was a young man. The second tells us how Feynman investigated the Challenger explosion. The book is not technical, the second part is a bit more detailed and might tell you more about rocket engines that you would like to know, but the whole book is very interesting. I particulary enjoyed the first part, how Feynman decided to still marry Arlene not matter what everyone else was telling him, and how special their relationship was. Feynman is a brillian man, yet funny and modest, he even shares some of his embarassing moments. I became a fan and am now going for more Feynman books. A first part for your heart, and a second part for your brain. Some were just random thoughts, with no order at all, and it was a bit confusing sometimes for someone who didn't know Feynman's life, but still, this was a delicious book and I strongly recommend it to anyone who is interested in reading about the people who make brilliant science... and still have a sense of humor. :)
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 May 23, 2001
A sort of sequel to "Surely You're Joking...," this book has fewer laughs but still kept me fascinated by the mind of Richard Feynman. "Surely You're Joking..." was filled with short humorous anecdotes, not necessarily related, coming together as a sketchy autobiography. "What Do You Care..." is a little different in form and has two main themes: Feynman's relationship with Arlene, his first wife, and his challenges with the Challenger space shuttle investigation.
In this book, as opposed to "Surely You're Joking..." we get stories that we can follow for a longer time, and so there is a little more depth to them. Arlene's character is described more fully here, so we can understand their relationship better, and that was interesting. But I was more drawn to the Challenger story, which consists of his difficulties in finding information on the causes of the explosion while having to deal with bureaucracy and the unscientific minds of management. Sure, there must be tons of biases in here (he's a very opinionated guy), but Feynman's adventures are nonetheless filled with wonderful insights about life and science. And the last chapter, "The Value of Science" deals with things that many have forgotten or have never learned about science, doubt, and integrity.
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.
on May 1, 2001
Review of Richard P. Feynman's "What Do You Care What Other People Think?"
The novel "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" by Richard P. Feynman is an outstanding book about a curious physicist. The novel's title comes from Feynman's attitude of standing up and saying what is on his mind. He tries to persuade that idea to his future wife Arlene, who always watches what she says and is careful not to offend anyone. Arlene would also tease Richard with that line when she sent out greeting cards with her name and his nickname, "Putsy" on them. Feynman would be ashamed of that name and Arlene would use that line against him. This book is about a remarkable journey through the life and times of Richard Feynman. It details a tragic loss in his life, but also great accomplishments. Funny stories of booking a hotel, impressive speeches where people brag about shaking his hand, and Feynman being called a sexist pig will have you laughing out loud. Feynman is a world famous physicist who travels the world working on famous projects. The Manhattan Project, atomic bomb in Los Alamos, New Mexico, and the Challenger accident are just a few to name. Readers will love the portion of the book that details the Challenger accident where Feynman was a key player in determining the cause of the accident. The tale is fascinating how he worked with the media and traveled all over from Washington D.C. to Florida, and Alabama to Texas to find valuable information. This book is a great find for all readers. The stories on the value of science to create and solve problems is magnificent. "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" will also touch your heart with life lessons and losses. This wonderful novel will have you crying tears one page and dying laughing on the floor the next. Treat yourself to a dynamic journey through science by reading "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" by Richard P. Feynman, whose remarkable road ended on February 15, 1988 due to a battle with cancer.
on May 2, 2001
"What do you care what other people think" might not be as fast-paced and full of as many laugh-out-loud anecdotes as "Surely You're Joking", but it's just as entertaining, and even more thought-provoking. The first half of the book is much like Surely You're Joking. It's a series of funny and touching stories and recounted adventures. The second part of the book details Feynman's work investigating the Challenger explosion in 1986. Despite how it sounds (and the opinion of another reviewer), it's not boring at all. In fact, it's absolutely fascinating. It's not just a description of the investigation, it's like a detective story, complete with mystery and deception and finding clues and following leads and beating the system. It also serves to demonstrate both Feynman's brillance and his ability to make just the right kind of trouble. Feynman, having been dropped out of his science element and into the bureaucracy of Washington, shows his wonderful childlike way of encountering new situations. Instead of going by the book and doing what he's told like many of the other commissioners, Feynman goes on his own one-man mission to solve the case. On the way, he discovers a lot of cover-ups and curious mistakes, which, when we remember that they lead to the haunting Challenger explosion, are awfully creepy. I think the Challenger investigation stuff is the most inspirational of Feynman's memoirs so far. What he reveals during his investigation is shaking; not just the incidents themselves, but what they say about human nature. Even more shaking is the realization that most of us never stop to question the status quo, even when it smells fishy. While the rest of the commission was on guided tours of Kennedy, Feynman would sneak away, against the wishes of the people in charge, to interview the lowest assembly workers. It's an example of how we all should be; always doubting, always finding out answers for ourselves, and always curious. Oh, despite being inspirational and all that, it's extremely funny!
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.