Richard Feynman (ed. Ralph Leighton)

 

Surely You’re Joking Mr Feynman

 

This book was a total pleasure to read.

 

Ralph Leighton has to be recognised for taping all these interviews with Feynman – who probably would have felt that he had much better things to do with his time than bothering to write down anecdotes, editing and shaping them into easily readable chapters. He’d be off doing something more interesting, like cracking safes, chatting up women, or playing congas. Or maybe even some theoretical physics.

 

The Feynman portrayed here is delightfully individual. There’s some classic autism-spectrum stuff (some university faculties being sheltered workshops for people with Aspergers), where, for example, social interactions are less something felt than analysed, or enacted as a set of rules rather than experienced (as in his experimentation on how to get women to sleep with him – which seemed as much, or more, about testing hypotheses than about sex; or when he plays with hierarchical expectations interacting with military personnel). There’s the joy of his lateral thinking – approaching things in an entirely non-conformist way, but with no deliberate attempt to be rebellious, and often with at least as good or even better outcomes than the road more travelled. And the hilarious irony of his getting distracted from – of all things – the Manhattan Project: but if he wasn’t the sort of guy who got obsessed by things like ciphers, he wouldn’t be the guy to work on the bomb. His self-confidence fuelled all sorts of pursuits where others would have been too intimidated by being outranked or out of their area, but, again counter-intuitively, this same confidence enabled him to say things like, “This is why I was wrong in my biological research.”

 

There are lots of interesting people out there, but few who have had some of their stories related so engagingly. Deservedly an instant classic. Also a great read in snippets – even out loud to enjoy with other people.

 

September 2014