I’m going to keep this short so I don’t mess it up. Everyone needs to read “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Richard P. Feynman was an American physicist who is known for a great many intellectual discoveries. In this book, he’s known for his time spent on the Manhattan project when he cracked his colleagues’ safes. I’m sure there are more serious stories he could have told about his work at Los Alamos, but this is not that kind of book.
What I love most about these anecdotes is how conversational they are. If you open the book and parse the writing as, well, writing, it’ll seem weak. These stories haven’t been fastidiously edited and nit-picked, they’ve been taken from taped conversations between Feynman and his drumming partner, Ralph Leighton. They convey a unique freshness and immediacy. When you laugh at Feynman’s antics and practical jokes, you feel as though you’re laughing with a friend. He has brilliant timing when recounting his pranks and I sometimes find myself telling one of his stories instead of a joke when I need an ice-breaker (what can I say?—funny safe-for-work jokes are in short-supply).
While there are mentions of Feynman’s work as a physicist, no scientific knowledge is needed to understand these anecdotes as they’re often about his attempts to learn something new. When a story has to do with physics, he explains only as much as is needed to understand the punch-line. But for the most part, this collection is about cracking safes, stealing doors, playing bongos, and learning Japanese. Feynman has such a wide range of interests that he continuously finds himself into peculiar situations. He does a brilliant job of providing a few sentences at the start of each story to frame it in such a way that you can’t help reading. One time, the phone rings and he doesn’t know the caller:
“Have you really got the right fella?” I say. “I’m a professor of theoretical physics. I’m not a rocket engineer, or an airplane engineer, or anything like that.”
“We’re sure we have the right fellow.”
“Where did you get my name then? Why did you decide to call me?”
“Sir, your name is on the patent for nuclear-powered, rocket-propelled airplanes.”
“Oh,” I said, and then I realized why my name was on the patent and I’ll have to tell you the story.” (181)
If there’s a better set-up for the story of the patent on nuclear-powered, rocket-propelled airplanes, feel free to suggest it in the comment section.
For the sake of balancing this review, it grieves me to report that amongst the playfulness and wit, there are several stories that show an unattractive degree of arrogance. I’m torn on how to reflect on these stories, because I very much want to like Feynman. A prime example is the time he leaves a waitress’ tip inside an inverted glass of water. Not being able to figure out how to claim her tip without making a mess, she spills the water and has to clean it up. As someone who has waited tables, this kind of behavior is neither cute nor funny. Feynman knows when he’s the smartest man in the room and is occasionally willing to flex his mental muscles at the expense of others’ self esteem.
Translation: Read it with a sense of humor.