Unqualified Bias

Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman! – Book Review

I was given this book as a birthday present last year by my friend who is a physics teacher. I was slightly concerned upon receiving it, because I have no knowledge of physics and couldn’t see how I’d find it interesting, so I approached the book with caution. I needn’t have worried though – this book is an easy recommendation, which should probably be required reading for everybody…

It turns out that Feynman didn’t actually write the book – it’s a collection of transcribed stories, taped by a friend of his. All are real stories, told with precision, primarily because they are fun, and there’s a lesson or a laugh in each of them. After reading the first few pages of the chapter ‘He fixes radios by thinking,’ I realised that I didn’t need an ounce of scientific knowledge to enjoy this book. It is basically about Feynman himself, one of the brightest, most playful, and inquisitive people in history, as well as being one of the greatest physicists of all time. His encounter with ‘Mr Big’ in Las Vegas is funny too.

We get an insight into what the world looks like through the eyes of someone who is significantly more intelligent than the average person, (dimwits like me, to be precise), whose thirst for understanding leads them to find, and solve  puzzles wherever they look.

Feynman describing what he observed of Las Vegas showgirls to a captivated audience of colleagues in 1978.

For example, someone was idly spinning a plate while waiting in line in the cafeteria one day, when he noticed that the emblem in the centre was rotating about half as fast as the wobbles were moving around the outside. Having nothing better to do, he started describing it mathematically, and discovered the ratio to be 2:1 – an observation that led, eventually, to an understanding of how light interacts with electrons, and his Nobel prize. It turns out this is important stuff! It explains reflection, refraction, and lots of other things. Did you know that the ‘photon’ of light that enters a piece of glass is not the same one that comes out on the other side? It goes into an electron, which makes another photon, which travels to another electron which does the same thing, like dominoes, until it reaches the other side of the glass! That’s why light seems to move slower in glass than in air…it’s because of all the messing about it has to do! Interesting, eh? [su_quote cite=”James Gleick”]Feynman…did theoretical physics as spectacularly as anyone alive. He won the Nobel Prize for his groundbreaking work in the 1940s in quantum electrodynamics, a theory that tied together in an experimentally perfect package all the varied phenomena at work in light, radio, magnetism, and electricity. He had taken the century’s early, half-made conceptions of waves and particles and shaped them into tools that ordinary physicists could use and understand. This was esoteric science–more so in the decades that followed–and Feynman was not a household name outside physics, but within his field he had developed an astounding stature. He had a mystique that came in part from sheer pragmatic brilliance–in any group of scientists he could create a dramatic impression by slashing his way through a difficult problem–and in part, too, from his personal style–rough-hewn, American, seemingly uncultivated.[/su_quote]


The book is informative, funny and inspiring, and gives you an honest account of his life and his adventures, solving everyday problems with mischievous alacrity and debunking nonsense where he finds it. There’s also a heartfelt account of the part he played in Los Alamos on the atomic bomb project alongside chapters on his love of art, playing the bongos, safe-cracking and the way he viewed his winning of the Nobel Prize as a bit of a pain in the neck. It’s so good, I’ve started to read it again. X Pip

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