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Posted: Aug 03, 2007

Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!

(Nanowerk Spotlight) Having just re-read Richard Feynman's 20-year old autobiography titled Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) I thought it makes for a great little Nanowerk Spotlight leading into the weekend - and it won't be about nanotechnology. Feynman's 1959 lecture "Plenty of room at the bottom" is probably the most famous and most quoted physics speech ever and it is the one thing that most non-scientists associate with his name. Feynman, who received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work on on quantum electrodynamics, participated in the Manhattan Project and was a member of the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. He taught physics, first at Cornell and later at the California Institute of Technology. In typical Feynman fashion, a major factor in his decision of chosing CalTech over other institutions was a desire to live in a mild climate, a goal he chose while having to put snow chains on his car's wheels in the middle of a snowstorm in Ithaca, New York.
What makes this book such a gem is the weird and wacky collection of anecdotes that Feynman serves up when leading us through his childhood, education and career. Whether he learns how to pick locks and crack safes, plays the bongo drums in an orchestra, gets a commission to paint a naked female toreadore, or competes in a samba competition during Carnival in Rio, the book is not about physics, but the physicist. Underneath all these hilarious stories, though, are recurring leitmotifs of curiosity, tenacity, and total disrespect for ideas that have no grounding in science. For everyone who is quoting Feynman's speech, or who is reading it, this autobiography goes a long way explaining the unconventional mind behind his revolutionary ideas.
Throughout the book Feynman describes situations where he is confronted with things he doesn't understand or can't explain, and his overwhelming desire to get to the bottom of whatever the challenge is, and master it. One one hand this is the basis for his scientific career, trying to figure out how natural phenomena work. On the other hand, this led him to do many things in his private life that you wouldn't necessarily associate with a professor in physics and a nobel laureate. He certainly wasn't living in an ivory tower.
Feynman the safe-breaker: "I love puzzles. One guy tries to make something to keep another guy out; there must be a way to beat it!" When he was a member of the Manhattan Project, Feynman decided that the safe combination locks that guarded some of the most secrets documents were a challenge of his liking. He bought safecracker books and undertook a systematic study of how these locks worked. After one and a half years of picking locks he became really good at it and developed a reputation at Los Alamos as a safe-breaker. He got a real kick out of needling especially military types with it: "I always had a thing about military guys, in such wonderful uniforms."
Feynman the drummer: during a ten-month stay in Brazil at the Center for Physical Research he happened to get introduced to a samba school and decided to learn how to play the frigideira. He got so good that he became part of his samba school's band that participated in the contest at the Carnival of Rio. And won. Again, he had started something just on a whim and out of curiosity, but then wouldn't let go until he became very good at it.
These are just two small anecdotes in a book that paints a very human picture of Feynman – sometimes brutally honest, but still very funny, for instance when he admits to having become a regular at a strip club during a summer in Albuquerque. He recalls in great detail how one of the dancers teaches him how to pick up a girl in a bar without having to buy her a drink first. He then tests this 'technique' on an 'amateur' and succeeds as well.
When you read the comments in the book's review section on Amazon it becomes clear that not everyone is endeared to his pranks, certain episodes of his life, or his colloquial writing style. Many others, though, think that for a physicist he was a 'very cool guy.'
The overwhelming impression is of a person – notwithstanding his love for practical jokes or some of his more eccentric pastimes – who has a passion for truth, in a scientific sense, where the integrity of doing scientific experiments is more important than just teaching students to provide the right answers.
The final paragraph in Feynman's book reads: "So I have just one wish for you – the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom."
By , Copyright Nanowerk LLC

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