I listened to Mr. Feynman’s memoir, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, as I drove for the last few weeks. Although some aspects of the Nobel Prize winning physicist’s life were rather interesting, overall, I am surprised I stuck with his story for so long. It was not a favorite of mine.
I’m not normally interested in memoirs. I find I just don’t care about the personal life of (1) most celebrities or (2) random people I’d never heard of before. But because Feynman was a Nobel Prize winner in science, I thought he might have something interesting to add to the scientific discussion. Since I’m always in need of more scientific thought in my life, I picked it up.
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) certainly did have an interesting life, and his memoir captures some of the fascinating aspects of being a scientist: how he learned to repair radios as a teenagers by taking them apart; his interest in science from a young age versus his anti-social tendencies; his years working on the Manhattan project; his severe criticism of Brazil’s educational system and his thoughts on what makes an education “good.”
I particularly liked to learn of Feynman’s personal development as he grew older, learning to embrace the humanities as well as science. As a college student, he resented the requisite humanities classes. As he aged, he learned to play the drums, draw, and even become an expert in Mayan antiquities. This was refreshing to me: it show me that a ground-breaking physicist can also be a well-rounded individual.
On the other hand, Feynman is not a serious man, and his memoir is filled with non-scientific tidbits. Feynman was fascinated with topless bars, for example. His escapades in Brazil during Carnaval, his bar fights, and his irreverence for all things “formal” (such as the Nobel Prize ceremony) also were pretty non-scientific. As those who know my reading style may be able to guess, these less serious bits were not as interesting to me. In fact, I could have skipped all the topless escapades and been happier. Still, as Feynman himself commented at one point “All this human being stuff is kind of fun too.”
In the end, I could have passed on Surely Your Joking, Mr. Feynman. Although it was fun to see how a scientist looks at the world, I would have rather learned something about science with my time. On the other hand, if you want to see how a famous physicist lives and learns, this might be the book for you.
The audiobook I listened to was unabridged and wonderfully narrated by Michael Kramer.