Wednesday, March 5, 2014

What Do You Care What Other People Think? Further Adventures of a Curious CharacterWhat Do You Care What Other People Think? Further Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

In a sense, Richard Feynman's "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" is a sequel to his "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" as it mainly covers the famous physicist's later years. Yet it really is a different kind of book - a rather loose collection of Feynman's texts ("stories") selected and organized by his secretary, Ralph Leighton. Because of this lack of coherence, the book makes less powerful impression than "Surely You Are...". Still, it is a great read, and for me three "stories" are deeply memorable.

The chapter on Feynman's beloved first wife, Arlene, is moving. She is staying in a hospital in Albuquerque, dying of tuberculosis (her early death being a result of various doctors' incompetence). Feynman is working on the atomic bomb in Los Alamos and visits her over the weekends. The chapter is poignant, without being sentimental, and the story of several flat tires as Feynman rushes to be with Arlene during her final moments is unforgettable.

For purely personal reasons I loved reading Feynman's letter to his third wife, Gweneth, as it was written in a hotel that was on my way from home to school, when I was in the seventh grade in 1963. I walked past that hotel twice every day. Feynman describes the atmosphere and some details of life behind the Iron Curtain quite well.

Part 2 of the book is titled "Mr. Feynman Goes To Washington" and it tells the well-known story of the physicist's crucial role in finding the causes (O-ring failure and the culture of under-appreciating mission risks) of the 1986 Challenger shuttle disaster. The author is not naive when he alludes to the simpleminded and uplifting Capra's movie "Mr. Smith Goes To Washington". He shows how seven people died so the politicians could strut. He shows how various top people in government are in the business of manufacturing and selling the truth. He shows the dirt of politics, without calling things by name. Feynman even manages to describe the most wily liar on the Rogers Commission in friendly and respectful terms. Good writing job.

The best comes at the end, like in a good mystery, when we finally learn who really discovered the cause of Challenger disaster.

Three stars.

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