|Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company|
Originally Published: 1985
Author: Richard Feynman & Ralph Leighton
When you have the world’s top theoretical physicist helming a book, what kind of a book would you expect it to be? Let me guess. A book filled with enthralling insights and learnings from his life and career? If you nodded your head yes, I am afraid you might be disappointed with Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.
Prof Richard Feynman is one of the greatest physicists and pop-science writers of all time, one of the originators of the genre. But his memoir lacks content that could keep the reader riveted. Most of the book is about his life’s memorable experiences outside the lab. If you are looking for a book that details his enormous contributions to the field of physics, then you need to look elsewhere.
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman encapsulates his life from his early pre-teen days in his hometown of Far Rockaway to his gaining reputation as a top-notch physicist while working on Manhattan Project to his days at Caltech where he taught for a long time.
Feynman’s sharp wit and willingness to upstage anyone who ever tried to subdue him was the hallmark of his personality. A large part of the book underscores this virtue of his via a mixed bag of funny and not-so-funny pranks.
Look, I am not averse to reading funny anecdotes, but along with some rib-tickling, I was also expecting some gravitas in the book. Needless to say, the book fails to provide it. Further, I didn’t find a lot of stories humorous either. There are parts that I kind of enjoyed and there are parts that bored the heck out of me so much that I had to skip them.
The book essentially unveils Richard Feynman’s private persona to the reader. Much to my amusement, he shares several glimpses from his private life. You know, things a prominent figure would like to rather sweep under the rug, but, not Feynman. He had a different constitution. A colorful character who was not afraid of calling a spade a spade.
He was someone who experimented a lot in his personal life, too. At least, that’s how he comes across in the book.
In the chapter titled ‘You Just Ask Them?’, Feynman talks about a philandering couple he met while he was club hopping. He addresses the husband – a compulsive womanizer – as the Master.
This master gave Feynman lessons in picking up girls in what can be described as the most unambiguous way. “Under no circumstances be a gentleman! You must disrespect the girls...,” says the master, and Feynman quickly jumps to put the master’s advice into practice. Here’s him:
It’s stuff like this that makes you wonder if the Noble prize-winning scientist was also a skirt-chaser. But this is a personal, warts-and-all memoir and should be read without being judgmental.
Normally, people don’t associate levity, fun, and zeitgeist for life with a geeky scientist. And, this is where Feynman was different. His exploits and anecdotes are pretty mystifying to an average joe like me.
It is clear from the book that Richard Feynman possessed a unique set of neural networking. His quirks appear to have been the result of a mind wired differently than the average person.
Though written in short anecdotes that make it easily readable, I believe this is not Feynman’s best book. It seems Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman only recounts stories while trying to be funny, but never actually making the reader reflect deeply.
I would highly recommend “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out” as a much more thought-provoking book. In it, Feynman tells stories and searches for meaning in life and physics and takes the reader along.
Finally, you might enjoy this book more if you are able to disassociate his public image – that of a pre-eminent physicist – from the one the book portrays. I tried to, but I could not. Maybe, I got a bit prejudiced in my review, too. But then, there are things he says that as a discerning reader, I could not condone. This book might have been a bestseller when it came out in the 80s, but it surely hasn’t aged well and on that front, I am not joking.
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