Those who know me well might be surprised that a recent fun read was written by a Nobel Laurette in Physics. Just saying — I really don’t speak “math.” However, the book came to me from Jake — who does know me well — and he knew I would get a kick out of the wicked wit of this brilliant mind.
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character is Richard P. Feynman’s memories of his outrageous adventures driven by his insatiable curiosity. Each chapter is a neatly contained short story, beginning with his childhood in Far Rockaway, Queens where he developed a reputation as a weird kid who could do cool stuff — like fix radios “by thinking!” His wit is delightfully self-deprecating as he relates how is fell into successes just because he was too naïve to know not to try.
He certainly was not consumed with his own brilliance and was rather amazed to wind up at MIT, and delightfully surprised to realize he had landed with his tribe. He had to this point found ways to entertain himself, which meant indulging his intellectual interests. In an early chapter, he shares stories of when he worked in a hotel — alternating his eleven hour days as a desk clerk or busboy in the restaurant. To break the tedium of the work, and to cut corners, he “invented” a new way to handle trays and to cut string beans. One resulted in a spectacular crash, the other with a spurting bloody finger — and a life lesson: “I learned that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real word,” because his bosses had little imagination and no patience.
College introduced a whole world of intellectual stimulation and the hijinks that come from a community of brilliant minds. Even in this rarified world, Feynman was unique. He relates a moment in his freshman year when his roommates — both seniors — “were working pretty hard on something that seemed pretty clear to me.” He explained what he was thinking and how it solved the problem. “…but I had read all this stuff in the encyclopedia without talking to anybody about it, so I didn’t know how to pronounce anything.” Once the roomies got that he was referring to “Bernoulli’s equation” not “Baronallai’s equation,” they “were very excited, and from then on they discussed their physics problems with me.”
I love this guy! He is a version of students I’ve known and have helped negotiate the “must dos” of school. In a chapter titled, “Always Trying to Escape,” Feynman recalls how he played the school game at MIT. He writes, “When I was a student at MIT I was interested only in science; I was not good at anything else. But at MIT there was a rule: You have to take some humanities courses to get more ‘culture.’” What he discovered is that astronomy counts as a humanities course, “So that year I escaped with astronomy.” The next year, the closest thing to science he could find was philosophy.
He relates how he interpreted assigned themes for English papers that caught his fancy, like writing a parody of Huxley’s “On a Piece of Chalk” that he titled “On a Piece of Dust” about how “dust makes the colors of the sunset and precipitates the rain….” For the philosophy class, where he could not understand a word the professor said, he got interested in the idea of stream of consciousness and when does it end --his emphasis.
“So every afternoon for the next four weeks I would work on my theme. I would pull down the shades in my room, turn off the lights and go to sleep. And I’d watch what happened when I went to sleep.” Since he went to sleep each night, “I had two times each day when I could make observations — and it was very good!” And from this, he not only wrote a theme that the professor liked, he developed a fascination for observing his thinking processes that evolved into delving into dream analysis.
And so it goes – his Princeton years where he earned a PhD, his experiences with military and working on the bomb at Los Alamos, his teaching at Cornell and Caltech — each chapter is a synopsis of his scientific work wrapped around life moments that he found funny and enlightening.
Here are two life lessons that I would want my students — and their parents — to understand:
I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.
(I think of all the little kids who are studying their math to take a test to prove that they are smart enough to continue in an advanced math course. They know a lot of math facts, and can do math by rote, but to what end when they don’t really understand — know — math.)
I don’t know what’s the matter with people: They don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way — by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile.
Feynman made this observation when he was at Princeton, working on his PhD, surrounded by super brains that too often were consumed with doing school — as in getting the “right” answer — whereas Feynman was playing with ideas and having fun with forging new paths.
One of those paths was in the field of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics. “The Principle of Least Action in Quantum Mechanics” was his 1942 dissertation, which he expanded upon with “Space-Time Approach to Quantum Electrodynamics” and “The Theory of Positrons” in the 1940s. In 1965, he won the Nobel Prize in Physics, sharing it with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga for their independent work in quantum electrodynamics.
Another area of interest was in “tiny machines” – nanotechnology. It seems remarkable that this quintessential 21st century technology came from the mind of a man born in 1918.
From the Feynman website:
Many consider him to be the father of nanotechnology for two prizes he offered in a 1959 talk entitled, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” where he prompted thinking on a very small scale. He offered a prize for the world’s smallest motor, and another challenge involving very small writing; so small that the text of the Encyclopedia Britannica could be contained on the head of a pin. The prize for the motor was claimed almost immediately, but the challenge of the writing wasn’t met for over 20 years.
In the 1984 — still decades before the concept was widely known — he shared in a video format his talk on “Tiny Machines – Nanotechnology.”
Feynman’s name is most familiar, however, from a series of lectures on physics that were edited and illustrated by Robert B. Leighton and Matthew Sands. These lectures, given at Caltech from 1961 to 1964, are now in three volumes that include The Definitive and Extended Edition of the lectures with Feynman’s Tips on Physics and Four Lectures on Problem Solving Exercises. These books are considered to be the most popular books on physics ever written.
But it is the “popular works” that caught and kept my attention. Even with all the physics talk embedded in everything he does — which I skim over — Feynman is a terrific wit and his books are delightful reads.
In 1985 he compiled the Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman followed by, in 1988, What Do You Care What Other People Think? : Further Adventures of a Curious Character. (Both by W.W. Norton).
Another of his popular works is Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, (Basic Books, reprinted 2005).
I love that these titles capture his sense of humor and his perspective on life. For my students who are so captivated by physics — oh the number of my middle schoolers who dive into research projects on quantum theory and nanotechnology! — I want them to read this guy. He is the learner that I want them to be — open to ideas, willing to try, fail, and try again! And so frankly unconcerned what other people think, which includes teachers who gave him grades.
And as they mature, I hope they can recognize and emulate the character traits of a truly great man.
Feynman died in 1988 after a long battle with stomach cancer. He was writing Surely You’re Joking and Further Adventures of a Curious Mind through those travails. Moreover at the same time, he was doing some deadly serious work — in1986 he was working on the commission investigating the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle.
What an amazing, multifaceted, truly brilliant man.
One last thought on the idea of “genius” that is so liberally tossed around. This quote by Han Bethe delineates the difference between what is called genius and someone like Richard Feynman:
There are two types of genius. Ordinary geniuses do great things, but they leave you room to believe that you could do the same if only you worked hard enough. Then there are magicians, and you can have no idea how they do it.
Feynman was a magician.
I wrote a column, Book Notes, for many years for local central NJ weeklies. Newspapers are a dying breed, but the desire to share thoughts on books lives on.