Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman

Richard Feynman is a Nobel prize winning physicist and this book includes stories of his time in undergrad at MIT, graduate school at Princeton, working at Los Alamos in New Mexico, teaching at Caltech and Cornell, and purely analyzing and living life.

It is composed of a series of pieces on subjects ranging from physics (of course), to education in general, art, music, travel, and the quirkiness of humans, himself included. What I particularly enjoyed is how he has used his platform as a world renowned scientist to not bolster his ego, but to share physics with the world while also exploring his interests in broad topics and remaining true to who he is – someone who doesn’t crave or need the spotlight, makes light of most anything, and calls a spade a spade.

He has an extremely distinguishable voice, if you will, and this book contains more exclamation points than I would have anticipated. You think an editor would veto this, alas, they survived and come the end you understand why. Feynman is enthused and curious about everything and everyone he crosses paths with. He appreciates his mind and exercises it regularly. Whether that means learning how to play the drums when at Los Alamos or figuring out how to break into high security safes to secure work related material when the keeper of said safe is unavailable. After befriending an artist at a party he undertakes drawing as a hobby while exchanging lessons in sketching for lessons in science. He then goes on to find himself playing a minor role in the art world. That’s the type of tangent that makes him intriguing. He was a profoundly important scientist but did not let that role define him.

A famous physicist can do and be more than his or her title at work, we all can. I admire someone who is a theoretical physicist and doesn’t lean on the title. He’s a guy who likes science, playing the drums, and cracking safes – that’s a far more humble introduction. He also happens to be a Nobel Prize winner but that’s not his pedestal. This, in my opinion, is wherein his unique character coincides with his research and creates fame.

To paraphrase Seneca: “None of those who have been raised to a lofty height by riches and honors is really great. Why then does he seem great? Because you are measuring the pedestal along with the man. A dwarf is not tall, though he stands on a mountain; a Colossus will maintain its size even when standing in a well. This is the error under which we labor, and how we are deceived; we value no man by what he is, but add the trappings in which he is adorned.” Or as the French statesman and philosopher Michel Eyquem de Montaigne put it: “The pedestal is not part of the statue. Measure him without his stilts; let him lay aside his wealth and his titles.”

Feynman doesn’t care that he’s a Nobel Prize winning physicist. He has, from my limited reading on him and the perspective provided by the author of the book, no ego. So take him for who he is, be inspired, and enjoy the ride.

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