|Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! / Richard P. Feynman|
|Reviewed by Tal Cohen||Friday, 13 November 1998|
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.
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.
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.