Tal Cohen's Bookshelf: A Collection of Personal Opinions about Books
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! / Richard P. Feynman
Reviewed by Tal Cohen Friday, 13 November 1998
I knew physicists are weird people, but this is really overdoing it; the subtitle, Adventures of a Curious Character, is somewhat of an undersatement. Prof. Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988), Nobel Prize laureate for physics in 1965 for ’’... fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”, was a most curious character indeed. After all, have you ever heard of another professor of physics that is an expert in lockpicking and safe cracking, had Playboy Playmates pose nude for his paintings, and played in the Carnival in Rio?

The book is a collection of anecdotes and stories from Feynman’s colorful life. Despite the credit on the cover, the book wasn’t really written by the good professor; rather, they were transcribed from recordings made by his friend Ralph Leighton. It includes stories from his childhood, his days as a college student, the Los Alamos project and beyond. Few of the stories deal directly with physics (or science in general); that who do, teach an interesting lesson or two. For example, the story titled “The Chief Research Chemist of the Metaplast Corporation”, detailing one of the numerous job positions Feynman held during his life, will not teach you much about chemistry, but it will tell you a lot about the damaging power of advertising.

In “Alfred Nobel’s Other Mistake”, Feynman almost makes you believe he would rather have not accepted the prize only because of the time differences between Europe and the US. But reading about his brush with Swedish Royalty is most entertaining.

(From the book) [...] I therefore had no idea why someone would be calling me at 3:30 or 4:00 in the morning.

“Professor Feynman?”

“Hey! Why are you bothering me at this time in the morning?”

“I thought you’d like to know that you’ve won the Nobel prize.”

“Yeah, but I’m sleeping! It would have been better if you had called me in the morning.” — and I hung up.

My wife said, “Who was that?”

“They told me I won the Nobel Prize.”

“Oh, Richard, who was it?”

In several different stories (“Altered States” and others) Feynman relates his most fascinating experiments with dreams and hallucinations. While interested in the subject, Feynman was reasonably afraid to try drugs: “I love to think,” he says, “and I don’t want to screw up the machine.” So when offered an opportunity to try hallucinations induced by a sense-deprivation tank, with no physiological danger, he never thought twice.

Finally, in a more serious note, the book’s last chapter — “Cargo Cult Science” — is a strong critique on some of the pseudo-science practices of our days, and on what is often referred to as “New Age” science. This story, unlike the others, is not a transcription of Feynman’s talks with his friends, but rather it is adapted from his Caltech commencement address given in 1974.

(From the book) During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas — which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked — or very little of it did.

But even today I meet a lot of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFOs, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.

Like some other critics of the pseudo-sciences, Feynman at least tried to keep an open mind, and allowed others to try and demonstrate their methods to him. For example, he met with Uri Geller, who tried (and failed) to read his mind or bend keys for him. Feynman does not rush into conclusions; he only comments that because of Geller’s failures, he was “unable to investigate that phenomenon.” But his comments on the subject are important ones. It is sad to note, though, that about a quarter of a century after he presented his attack on pseudo-science, “New Age” myths and “Cargo Cult Science” are even more dominant, if nothing else.

Find this book
More Feynman Tales:
The further adventures of Richard Feynman can be found in What Do You Care What Other People Think.

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