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

by Ralph Leighton
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"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2092

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.

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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 daring and delightful; consider M*A*S*H*. At other times, the question seems adolescent; after all, didn’t Holden Caulfield complain about these things, too? Feynman is not complaining, however; he is only pointing out absurdity. Although in his art, he is representational even when he is abstract, in his dealings with other people, he is a Dadaist.

One of the most interesting sections of the book covers the wartime years at Los Alamos. It was a time of intense work, done in isolation and in secret; for Feynman, it was more than that. He was coming of age. It was also a time of personal tragedy, being stationed at Los Alamos and working feverishly on a secret project with the elite of high-energy physics while his wife was confined to a hospital, dying of tuberculosis. Yet this is not a book about a person’s attempts to deal with death or a loved one’s mortality. Nor is it a book about coming of age or intellectual rites of passage. Feynman’s (first) wife, Arlene, is first mentioned on page 104, in the context of what he would do during his (infrequent) time off from his work at Los Alamos. He would visit Arlene, who was in a hospital in Albuquerque: There is a short anecdote about how well people can discern smells or recognize ones for which they have been keyed. The next mention of her, a few pages later, comes by way of introducing Robert Oppenheimer, who is described as solicitous: “He worried about my wife.” All this is done to set up the classic Feynman story of following Oppenheimer’s orders to disguise the mass exodus from Princeton to Los Alamos by being the only one to disobey. Arlene’s name is brought up several more times in the ensuing pages, to set up other accounts of Feynman’s triumphs over the bureaucratic mind. Indeed, it is only her name that is raised, leaving the reader not only at a loss to imagine her or their relationship (When did they court? What did they talk about? How did she feel about his inspired outrageousness?) but also angry at him. It seems callous, and that is not what one expects from heroes. As ever, he “pulls a Feynman” and astonishes the reader with his candor: He admits that her death was something he had much difficulty handling. He tried to suppress it. He still does. There is no question that the poignancy of his recounting is far more affecting than any mere traditional mourning.

The Los Alamos chapter is one of the longest and most substantial in the book, perhaps because it was taken from another anthology. Among other characters, it introduces Feynman’s peers, both in physics and in quick insight. In one of the anecdotes, Feynman tells of being outflanked by Edward Teller, who figured out a prank as fast as Feynman could unveil it. As he says in the book, “The trouble with playing a trick on a highly intelligent man like Mr. Teller is that the time it takes to figure out from the moment that he sees there is something wrong till he understands exactly what happened is too damn small to give you any pleasure!”

It is instructive to compare Feynman’s account of the days at Los Alamos with another’s. Although not a Nobel laureate (probably only because there is no prize for mathematics), Stanislaus Ulam issued a very similar memoir, entitled Adventures of a Mathematician (1976). Ulam was educated in Europe, and his more formal and classical training shows throughout the book, especially when he comments on the antiphilosophical spirit among the junior American physicists. Ulam seems to include Feynman in this group of dedicated pragmatists, but quickly separates him from his contemporaries. “The younger scientists did not have much of an aura, they were bright young men, not geniuses. Perhaps only Feynman among the younger ones had a certain aura. Six or seven years younger than I, he was brilliant, witty, eccentric, original.” Ulam repeats the safecracking stories, giving Feynman more credit than Feynman deserves, by his own admission. The point of Feynman’s story was that he never really cracked a safe; he always let the owner give the combination away. Ulam thought it was a matter of listening to tumblers drop into place.

It is not obvious that a mischievous misfit would make a great teacher. On the other hand, there can be no denying Feynman’s ability to teach or his commitment to teach. One of the finest sections in the book deals with his attitudes toward teaching. He starts off the section that deals with his pre-celebrity academic career with the forthright “I don’t believe I can do without teaching.” A man as vibrant and curious as he is cannot be removed from the lectern.

It is instructive to listen to Feynman the raconteur become Feynman the lecturer. In the midst of a fascinating section about a sabbatical in Brazil, Feynman launches into a discussion of how one teaches and the shortcomings of Brazil’s educational system. The passion leaps from the pages, displaying the infectious enthusiasm of a good teacher. In the same way that Feynman decries the substitution of rote memorization for learning, the intensity of his discourse shows that it is not enough for a teacher to provide understanding; he or she must inspire students to proceed on their own. Throughout the book, one encounters such glimpses into the man, a man who is angry at those who want easy definitions, easy answers, and all those other safe but constricting constructs. This is especially true in the sections that deal with those who would define art, or pornography, Hasidic law, proper textbooks, or any of a dozen other items. The quality of this book seems as much the result of the stories themselves as their placement.

Perhaps the image that Feynman relishes most is that of the “wild child,” the prankster with a flair for insight, based as much on genius as on naïveté. This first comes to the fore when he gets to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Humor plays a large part in this book, perhaps because it is a compilation of anecdotes and not a series of biographical sketches. Another likely reason is that humor is very often a concomitant of both insight and a skewed perspective. This latter interpretation is from Arthur Koestler’s concept of bi-association and undoubtedly fits Feynman. An alternative explanation of humor derives from the ever-humorless profession of psychoanalysis, which takes humor all too seriously. Some analysts tend to associate humor with the fringes of mental instability. It is the definition of instability that makes this second definition appropriate here, because instability implies being poorly integrated or nonconforming, and that is just the kind of image that Feynman cultivates. Whether it is at a tea party in Princeton (the source of the title) at age twenty-three, at a high-security lab in New Mexico at twenty-eight, at Cornell at thirty, or at Caltech at fifty, he acts more like a man from Mars than a man of the world. This posture gives him enormous license and liberty and creates a dissonance in the reader’s perceptions, a cognitive dissonance that makes the reader reexamine expectations about those who have achieved greatness on the basis of their minds alone.


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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 55

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.

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