Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman by Richard Feynman

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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.

Reviewed on December 21, 2009

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  • >>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.

    This cracked me up so much. Before this year, I wasn’t a big memoir person either, but I’ve read several this year that really made me approach the genre in a more open way. None of them were by celebrities though!

    Oliver Sacks has a WONDERFUL science memoir-Uncle Tungsten. If you haven’t read it yet, I think you’d really enjoy it! 🙂

  • My mathyscience friend is always trying to get me to read this – she considers it proof that scientists can be interesting too, though I don’t know why she thinks she needs proof. I’ve always fought shy of it because, well, mainly because I’m rubbish at science. (Ridiculous reason really.) Don’t write off memoirs though! Some are wonderful!

  • Well, I don’t know if all famous physicists live and learned like Feyman did, but I did enjoy this one when I read it several years ago. I also enjoyed his sequel, “What Do You Care What Other People Think”? In that one, the last section of the book he discussed in depth the investigation of the Challenger disaster — lots of pics and diagrams so probably better to read that one than listen to it on audio.

  • Kathy, I hope you do!

    Eva, I have enjoyed some memoirs! And you seem to find some great ones. I have Uncle Tungsten on my list. I’m glad you enjoyed it so much!

    Aarti, he definitely had a sense of humor!

    Jenny, there is not much science in it, so if that is what is holding you back, I’d say go for it! And I have read some excellent memoirs, I just normally don’t enjoy them as much as the alternative.

    Valerie, I wonder if I’d enjoy reading it more. Then I could have skimmed the topless bars parts. Glad you enjoyed it!

  • I got this book in the clearance section of Half Price Books a long time ago and it’s been traveling around with me since. I tend to enjoy memoirs about random people, if their lives have been interesting, and it sounds like his has been. I’m not sure if you’re review pushed the book up or down on my TBR pile, but I’m glad you reminded me I have it 🙂

  • I saw this review earlier, but got caught up in the reviews of the two books on parenting and literacy. I read the two Feynman books mentioned (one in the review and the second in Valerie’s comment), and thought that his recounting of his early experiences with his father helped to explain his love of science. In fact, I used excerpts from his book “What do you care what other peole think” in the Introductions of two of my books on researchers (now out-of-print, but available in used book markets): The Undaunted Psychologist and The Enlightened Educator. To paraphrase Feynman, he was like a child always interested in what wonders he would find around him!
    Being a psychologist, their relationship was what impressed me the most about his life. It was not only that his father taught him to appreciate the wonders around him, but how he accomplished it.

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