"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" Analysis

Ralph Leighton

"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Nobel laureates in physics seem to be expected to write a book which explains their work and its relationship to people’s lives. Sometimes, this is followed up with a memoir or chronicle of the development of the laureate’s intellectual and scientific self. In all the history of laureate literature, there has been no equivalent of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” Adventures of a Curious Character; it can be argued that Dr. Feynman himself is unique if not peerless. What most sets it apart from other memoirs of famed physicists is its lack of introspection and self-analysis. The book is a collection of anecdotes, not diary entries expanded to chapter length. Yet in its way, “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” epitomizes the man. The title itself is indicative of the intent and the effect of the book; he is both telling jokes and challenging the reader’s preconceptions of what a physicist is and what kinds of books he or she should write.

As if the content were not shocking enough, the book was essentially, if not legally, ghostwritten—note the “as told to Ralph Leighton” at the bottom of the title page. Yet this is no ordinary ghostwriter seeking to make a popular hero’s ramblings into something palatable or literate; Dr. Leighton teaches physics alongside Feynman at the California Institute of Technology and was instrumental in converting Feynman’s lectures into a justifiably acclaimed physics text. Perhaps a Boswell to Feynman’s Johnson, but a peer, not merely a foil.

The most important aspect of this book is that it consists of anecdotes collected and compiled by Leighton over a period of years in a highly informal setting (while playing the drums no less, according to the preface). They are arranged in chronological order and thus chronicle Feynman’s increasing surprise at the respect accorded him; the more respect, the more surprise. He asks the question that drives publishers to sign up each new laureate: “What makes him (me) tick?” Or, in another formulation, “What makes him (me) special?” In almost every situation, Feynman casts himself as the naïf, often pointing out that the emperor is unclothed. He does not understand what prevents people from thinking clearly, or in some cases, thinking at all. Yet he rarely voices this opinion; he is more content to marvel at the contrast and at the pettiness that dominates so much of other people’s lives.

The pattern is set from the outset of both the book and Dr. Feynman’s life. He is asked to fix a radio by virtue of his reputation as a boy interested in electronics. As much as he tries to convince the reader/listener that he is unprepared for the repair job, his argument is undercut by his explanation of his thought processes. He just “realizes” the solution. To him, it is simply part of the puzzle-solving he enjoys. This chapter sets the tone for the book—the nonchalance of his solutions, the importance of impressing or astounding the audience, and his predilection for the unconventional. He closes with a brief mention of the various techniques he developed to tackle problems, emphasizing again the way he reshapes the world both to make it his and to make his further explorations easier. It is no wonder that part of his Nobel-winning contributions were called Feynman Diagrams.

Another major theme is introduced in the following chapter, which concerns a labor-saving method that fails. He is almost prouder of his efforts here than of those in the previous chapter, if one measures pride by counting details. The model for Feynman is not so much Albert Einstein or Wolfgang Pauli but Thomas Edison, or maybe even Nikola Tesla, someone with a tattered track record. He suggests that his success is more whimsical than anything else, and that furthermore, his forte is more novelty than philosophy, although the truth is more along the lines of subtlety. To Feynman, the physical world is a Gordian knot, to be unraveled as much as sawn through.

As the book progresses, so does the life of Richard Feynman. He gets to Princeton, where he encounters philosophers and other non-physics types. It is in this chapter that the reader first encounters Feynman the impatient. We see a man frustrated with the endless wrangling over terms that (to him) so characterizes philosophy, or the fascination with terminology that is so prevalent in biology or geology. Physics is reductionist and deductive, reasoning from abstractions, simplifications, and a minimum of special jargon. Throughout the book, one is struck by Feynman’s antipathy to “knowledge by naming” and the barriers that the memorization of names erects to the untutored, such as himself.

There is a similar note of querulousness when it comes to the social graces. At every opportunity, Feynman poses the question “Why?” Why must we behave like this? Why don’t we say what we mean? Why have protocol? When dealing with people that exude pomposity, the violation of protocol is cute, even funny, a reprise of Groucho Marx versus Margaret Dumont. When dealing with the military authorities, it seems...

(The entire section is 2092 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 10)

Choice. XXII, April, 1985, p. 1184.

Library Journal. CX, March 15, 1985, p. 56.

Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 24, 1985, p. 1.

Nature. CCCXIV, April 25, 1985, p. 685.

The New York Times Book Review. XC, January 27, 1985, p. 13.

The New Yorker. LXI, February 25, 1985, p. 104.

Newsweek. CV, March 11, 1985, p. 75.

Publishers Weekly. CCXXVI, December 14, 1984, p. 44.

Time. CXXV, January 7, 1985, p. 91.

The Wall Street Journal. CCV, May 3, 1985, p. 21.