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

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Genre: Biography / Author: Ralph Leighton, Richard P. Feynman / Edition: First Vintage edition / Paperback / 352 Pages / Book is published 1992-06-07 by Vintage

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    3 Reviews
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      23.12.2009 15:28

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      A really worthwhile purchase

      This is a truly entertaining book which gives a real insight into Richard Feynman's life. If you are interested in Physics or science in general, Feynman is a great person to read about because as this book reveals, he's exactly what you hope a scientist is. His stories aren't at all boring but they communicate the excitement that can be found in science.
      Having said that, I don't want to imply that this isn't a book for those not interested in science. It's a great autobiographical piece in its own right and the stories aren't soley about his scientific endeavours. By the end of it, I think most people will wish they had had the chance to be friends with Mr Feynman.
      All in all I'd say it is a great read if you want to find out more about Richard Feynmann or if you just want a thoroughly entertaining read.

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      17.12.2009 21:25
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      Science fan or not, this will still interest and amaze.

      Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman! This line is taken from one of the many anecdotes this book is filled with; in fact, essentially, it is the story of distinguished physicist Richard Feynman's life through the medium of anecdote. It starts out with his radio-fixing 'business' as a child, and his early interest in the application of science for magic tricks. One can see this fascination with the natural sciences throughout his entire life.

      Many of the anecdotes he presents to us are extraordinarily funny, such as the one which gives us the title, whereas others, are extremely poignant.

      These poignancies and humorous sections show us that Richard P. Feynman, Nobel Peace Prize winner, was not just a renowned scientist for the sake of it, but a man with interests - in art, in investigating phenomena, in developing skills and his mind for his own bettering. I wouldn't blame the reader for thinking that some of his stories may be exaggerated a bit, but the man was clearly a genius.

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      20.10.2005 15:52
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      A fascinating insight into a genius of science (not to mention drumming, sketching and safecracking)

      Have you ever heard of Richard Feynman? Perhaps you know he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. Perhaps you know that he, as a young physicist, helped develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos during the war. More likely, you are aware that he sat on the commission that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster (but that's another book, and another op). Perhaps you know none of these things.

      Reading "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!" - Adventures of a Curious Character will also tell you that he (amongst other things) dabbled in biology, was a painter (and even sold his drawings and paintings), cracked safes, was multilingual, and clearly a generally good, amusing guy. But I am getting ahead of myself.

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      The Basics - an explanation of format
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      "Surely You're Joking, Mr Feynman!" is not an autobiography, exactly. Instead, it is a record of conversations held (and taped) with his friend Ralph Leighton. Whilst they were playing the Bongo drums. Oh - didn't I mention that Feynman also played the bongos - in performance? Silly me.

      Anyway, I digress.

      So Feynman chatted with Leighton, and Leighton taped the conversations (and boy, would I like to hear THOSE tapes), and compiled the anecdotes into more or less chronological order, whilst keeping the 'feel' of Feynman's style of discourse (and, as yet another aside), even his lectures on physics keep the same feel. Feynman was a man that you took him as you found him, as it were.

      So unlike 'Genius', a 'proper' biography of Feynman, this book is not technical - it only talks about physics insofar as is necessary to illustrate an anecdote. You emphatically do NOT need to be a physicist, or indeed, have more than a bare-bones layman's knowledge of physics, to understand and hugely enjoy this book.

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      The Basics - bare biographical details
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      I could relate the bare biographical details, but instead, let Feynman himself explain: "Some facts about my timing: I was born in 1918 in a small town called Far Rockaway, right on the outskirts of New York...I lived there until 1935...I went to MIT for four years, and then I went to Princeton, in about 1939. During the time I was in Princeton, I started to work on the Manhattan Project...I went to Los Alamos in April 1943, until something like October or November 1946, when I went to Cornell...I visited Brazil in the summer of 1949...and then went to Caltech...I went to Japan in that end of 1951..."

      That is, of course, just an excerpt. It leaves out his three marriages (his first wife died of Tuberculosis whilst he was in Los Alamos; he and his second wife divorced, and his third wife survived him). Feynman died in 1988.

      But the point of including the admittedly long quote is to show Feynman's style. Despite his vast intelligence, he is straightforward, with a simple speaking style (which extends into his writing). Since "Surely You're Joking" is, essentially in Feynman's own words, it is worth reading some of his own words. And worth reading it certainly is.

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      The Book - overview
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      As mentioned earlier, the book is arranged vaguely in chronological order. But it is not a straight re-telling of his life and accomplishments. It does not analyse his motivation for entering physics, except so far as Feynman himself reckons.

      It is split into five parts, for five (sort of) 'stages' in his life, entitled (respectively) "From Far Rockaway to MIT," "The Princeton Years," "Feynman, the Bomb, and the Military," "From Cornell to Caltech, with a Touch of Brazil," and "The World of One Physicist." Each part has very short chapters, each containing one or two anecdotes that Feynman himself felt were worth telling - either because they provide insight into Feynman (motivations and how he thinks), or simply because they are amusing.

      Having said that, the final part ("The World of One Physicist") DOES talk a bit about physics (are you surprised) - though still mostly in anecdotal form. It also contains an essay adapted from the Caltech commencement address of 1974 - it's called "Cargo Cult Science", and is truly worth a read.

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      The Book - favourite stories from each section
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      I know this may seem too detailed - but I really think you need to 'hear' some of the stories to get a feel for what makes this book so much fun to read.

      There is, as I've said before, very little physics in here. Nevertheless, the 'adventures of the curious character' taught me quite a bit - about history, sociology, and maybe a wee bit of science...so please, bear with me.

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      Section 1 - "From Far Rockaway to MIT"
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      Unsurprisingly, this talks about Feynman's childhood and very early adulthood.

      It explains how he learned to love science - about his father (who was NOT a scientist - he was a uniform salesman) who taught him a love of learning and thinking for oneself. About how he had a sideline repairing radios - as a child (see chapter one - 'He Fixes Radios By Thinking!'). He talks about his early university years (did you know that there were quota systems at US universities - each university would only take a limited number of Jewish students!), and his summer job (at the Metaplast Corporation - you'll have to read the book).

      My favourite chapter is 'Latin or Italian' - Feynman loved the sound of Italian, and so invented his own Italian (as he didn't speak the language - he'd just heard the language spoken on a radio station). When he took his little sister to a Father/Daughter Scout banquet cum talent show, he invents an Italian poem out of the whole cloth. The girls realised that it was faux Italian - but the adults had a debate - was he speaking in Italian or in Latin?! That's classic Feynman.

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      Section 2 - "The Princeton Years"
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      No prizes for guessing which stage of his life this section covers. Feynman attended graduate school at Princeton.

      The title chapter appears here - "Surely Your Joking, Mr Feynman". And this has nothing to do with physics - but lots to do with tea. You see, MIT is an engineering university (The Massachusetts Institute of Technology), so it has a lot of science students (doh). Princeton is a 'full service' university, and so has students in both science and liberal arts disciplines.

      When Feynman was going there, there was a real class culture at Princeton - complete with formal teas for grad students (wearing gowns etc). Feynman was not used to this. So when the Dean's wife asked if he wanted milk or lemon in his tea, and he replied 'both', she replied...you guessed it. "Surely you're joking, Mr Feynman!".

      The chapter does go on to relate Feynman's experiment using the cyclotron. Not, however, for the purpose for which it was intended. No - he wanted to see what would happen to an S shaped lawn sprinkler if you pumped water in (whilst it was under water), rather than spraying it out - would it turn the 'wrong' way? You'll have to read the book (he he he).

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      Section 3 - "Feynman, the Bomb, and the Military"
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      As mentioned earlier, Feynman worked on the Manhattan project during World War Two. Now, as you may have gathered, Feynman isn't much of a military man (and, in fact, he was working on the project as a civilian, as were most of the scientists). He also doesn't take well to artificial discipline (he and his wife Arlene, who was in hospital with tuberculosis at the time, has all sorts of fun with the censors...but that's another story).

      It is at Los Alamos that Feynman became a safecracker. This story is told in the chapter entitled 'Safecracker Meets Safecracker'. Many (though not all) of the 'safes' Feynman refers to are actually filing cabinets with combination locks. Feynman loved to figure out how things worked. So he discovered that opening these filing cabinets wasn't actually that difficult - and so he did. At every opportunity. The way Feynman describes his antics reminds me of what computer hackers say today - it is important to break into systems to show how easy they are to break into. And that's what Feynman did - and he became notorious at Los Alamos for doing so.

      Many of the safes Feynman was able to open simply because the owner of the safe had never bothered to change the default combination...sound familiar? :)

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      Section 4 - "From Cornell to Caltech, with a Touch of Brazil"
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      These stories span the time (mostly) between the death of his first wife and the wedding to his second.

      On of the most fun (and, perhaps, surprising) of these stories is "You just ASK them?" You see, most people (well...me, at least) wouldn't peg a theoretical physicist as a ladies' man. But he always had a thing for men's nightclubs...with dancers. If you know what I mean.

      Well, he became well known at a particular nightclub. But what he couldn't figure out is that the owners would constantly introduce him to young women. He'd spend the evening buying her drinks, but she'd always find excuses to leave at the end of the evening. So he asked for advice.

      It seems that the trick to taking a woman home was (a) not to pay for anything; and (b) to ask. Outright. It worked. But, he does say he didn't use the technique often, "but", he said, "it was interesting to know that things worked much differently from how I was brought up."

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      Section 5 - "The World of One Physicist"
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      I've already mentioned my favourite chapter here - "Cargo Cult Science". Although not strictly an anecdote (rather an adapted speech), it does illustrate how Feynman thinks and learns, and has an important lesson to teach.

      In it, he defines what is and what isn't science. He does so by way of illustration. Please forgive me, because I'm going to quote a bit here, because what he has to say is REALLY important:

      "...Even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFOs, or astrology, or some form of mysticism...ESP and so forth. And I've concluded that it's NOT a scientific world. ... So we really ought to look into theories that don't work, and science that isn't science...In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war, they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to make things like runways...to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones...and they wait for the airplanes to land. The form is perfect....But it doesn't work. No airplanes land."

      The point Feynman is making is that many of the so-called sciences (and he includes elements of psychology and educational theories) are like the cargo cults - they APPEAR to follow scientific methods, and yet 'the planes don't land'. There is a lack of rigour, a lack of honesty, a lack of understanding, and a lack of integrity. It is an important message.

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      My Thoughts
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      As you may have already guessed, I have a huge amount of respect for Mr Feynman - a man I would have loved to meet. He was hugely intelligent, versatile, and amusing. He had a great respect for, and love for science in all its forms - physics in particular.

      Are all the stories true? I don't know - there are those that suspect that he has exaggerated some. Maybe so. Nevertheless, an intelligent and entertaining read. And who knows - you may even learn something.

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      How much?
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      Amazon stock the book in paperback for £7.99 new (from £4.43 used - though that changes regularly - keep checking) plus postage and packing (if you're order is under £19 or if you choose first class delivery instead of supersaver).

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      My Recommendation
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      Go - get a copy and read it. Now.

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    • Product Details

      Winner of the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965, Richard Feynman was also a man who fell, often jumped, into adventure - as artist, safe-cracker, practical joker and storyteller. He solved the mystery of liquid helium, was commissioned to paint a naked (female) toreador, explained physics to the likes of Einstein and Von Neumann, accompanied ballet on the bongo drums, and was judged mentally deficient by a US Army psychiatrist. Over a period of years, Feynman's conversations with his friend Ralph Leighton were first taped and then set down as they appear in this book, little changed from their spoken form, to give a self-portrait of a remarkable man.