Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Richard Feynman, in case you've not heard of him, was a theoretical physicist who worked at Caltech for many years, formulated large parts of modern quantum theory, and was heavily involved in the Manhattan Project, developing the first atomic bomb.  He was also a tad eccentric.

This book is a compilation of many taped discussions he had with friend Ralph Leighton, and they offer a thoughtful and often hysterically funny insight into the mind of one of the great 20th Century physicists.  There's no real structure to the book, beyond being roughly chronological, it's more of a long series of anecdotes about Feynman's personal life, work and views on life, the universe and everything.  There are tales of his sideline as a bongo drummer, black eyes picked up in some disreputable bars, rants about the idiocy he found in the military and the government, lessons in being a bloodhound and some particularly evil practical jokes.

His safe-cracking exploits are particularly funny, as he recounts repeatedly breaking in to the (supposedly top secret) filing cabinet and then safes at the military base hosting the Manhattan Project.  After developing a reputation as somebody who could get into any safe on the base he finally demonstrated that even the commanding officer's wasn't secure by breaking into it in front of him.  This led, not to improved security as you might expect on a military base, but to a standing order that Professor Feynman was not to be left alone with a safe.

There are thoughts on physics in there, but this isn't really a physics book, it's a wonderful window into the mind of one of the great eccentric geniuses of the last century.

It's one of several compilations of writings and recordings: see also What do you care what other people think? and Don't you have time to think?, on top of his bestselling and more technical Feynman Lectures On Physics.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
Ralph Leighton & Richard Feynman
CCV Publishing
ISBN: 9780099173311