Wednesday, March 5, 2014

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard P. Feynman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Richard Feynman's "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" is a highly entertaining read. In this series of chronologically ordered episodes Dr. Feynman, one of the brightest minds in human history, writes about his scientific, engineering, and practical endeavors from boyhood to the period after receiving Nobel Prize in physics (1965).

There are two threads in Dr. Feynman's narrative. One deals with how he has been able to solve hundreds of scientific or practical problems that no one else was able to solve. Feynman is well aware of his extremely rare intellectual powers. He describes his achievements without any boasting yet without false modesty either. The other thread, one that I find much more interesting, is the sharp criticism of what I call human "mental sloth" - people's unwillingness to think when trying to solve problems. "I don't know what's the matter with people," Feynman writes, "they don't learn by understanding; they learn by some other way - by rote, or something." In the most damning fragment Feynman writes how business reasons influenced selection of inferior textbooks for teaching of the "new math" in the Sixties in California.

As we travel with Dr. Feynman through his incomparably interesting life we read many amusing stories: how he fought censorship in the Los Alamos atomic bomb project, how he flunked his physical for the army because of psychiatric problems, how he was able to get girls in the bar to sleep with him, how he tried to get hypnotized and induce hallucinations in an isolation tank, and many others. The funniest of all these stories is the one about a stenotypist who told Dr. Feynman that he could not be a professor as she could understand all that he was saying.

The closing chapter, "Cargo Cult Science", adapted from the author's commencement address at Caltech in 1974 is a passionate and powerful indictment of the ways a lot of "science" is done. Feynman writes about how good scientists should "bend over backwards" to show how they are maybe wrong rather than just make their point.

Dr. Feynman paints a grim portrait of the intellectual condition in the 1930-1960 period, when celebrities were more important than geniuses, bullshit was stronger than reason, faking counted more than knowing, and wearing a uniform trumped being right. Guess what - things have not changed at all since the Sixties.

Four stars.

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