Sunday, February 6, 2011

Book 4: Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman
Richard Feynman

This book took me a bit of time to read. It wasn’t quick, and it often was clunky in the way it flowed. However, it was chock-full of fascinating information and factoids and bits of trivia about physics. I just loved it. 

Richard Feynman was about as interesting and eclectic as they come. He was a physicist who worked on the Manhattan project and won (among others) the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics. This book that I read was a series of recollections and personal experiences that ultimately formed an autobiography.

 The beginning of the book was a bit difficult to get into, while I love physics (and indeed, wish I were a much smarter mathematician – I’m not well-suited to the sciences for that one fact.) he didn’t really start off with physics. The entire time he wrote about his work on The Manhattan Project, he kept talking about his fascination with picking locks, pinpointing security flaws with their security of top-secret documents, and systematically working the mail-censoring to figure out what he could and couldn’t get through the mail. Really, that whole section was just tedious. However, it showed what an interesting character he was. 

The last half of the book was much improved. It talked about his work at the universities, some information on numbers, and his insatiable desire to learn. A fun fact discovered in the book about numbers: If you divide 1 by 243 you get .004115226337 and such which is an interesting pattern. He referred to it as ‘cute’ – which probably hints at some fundamental difference in thinking which made him a physicist and me…not. The latter half of the book he became a great bongo-drum player, taught himself multiple languages, appeared to be something of a womanizer, and spent a stint in some sensory deprivation chambers where he mastered the ‘out-of-body’ experience. 

I rather liked that bit (the out-of-body experiences). He achieved a way to move his consciousness, even to the point where he had multiple out of body experiences in these sensory deprivation chambers, but came to an interesting conclusion: “The representation that things are real does not represent true reality. If you see golden globes or something, several times, and they talk to you during your hallucination, and tell you they are another intelligence, it doesn’t mean they’re another intelligence; it just means that you had this particular hallucination.” I sincerely appreciated that he know how the world worked so…completely…that he was able to brush off all personal experiences for what was known  scientifically. That is impressive to me. 

Another theme which was woven throughout the book was about second-guessing yourself. Feynman didn’t appreciate looking the part of a fool (who does?) and thus wrote often about second-guessing himself in areas where he was ultimately correct. It was interesting to read that even a world-renowned physicist dealt with that sort of self-doubt, and his ultimate message was to quit doing that already! He also talked about not taking what experts say at face-value because in his experience, experts were often wrong. He also talked about feeling socially obligated to do things. He finally gave up on that and stopped trying to live up to others expectations, realizing that he simply couldn’t and when he disappointed others, stated that individuals being disappointed in him for having high expectations really stemmed from their mistake in overestimating his ability, not his failing. I felt that was a rather interesting conclusion. Somewhat profound, really. 

The whole book was laced with that sort of general wisdom in-between his work and experiences as a scientist. He wasn’t held into a social role of “just” being a scientist or professor. He branched out into all sorts of areas that interested him. Reading that made me feel a bit more normal for the times when I extensively /obsessively start studying something (like astrophysics, nutrition, or how to make the perfect macaroon in high-altitude); it’s more an intense passion for all there is to learn in this life than anything else, and I’m glad that a new hero of mine engaged in similar activities. 

So of course I started Googling him, and found that Bill Gates published a video series of Feynman’s lectures at Cornell. FASCINATING. The internet is amazing, how else could you ever have been educated on gravitational law by a professor who is dead? It’s just incredible. Anyways, check out the videos, I highly recommend them. Project Tuva - The Messenger Series

If you're interested in science at all, I'd say this would be a great book to read. If you're not interested in science, read this anyways. It may be enough to interest you. :)

Also, a web clip I particularly enjoyed as I was watching a few other lectures and interviews with Feynman.

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