Surely you're joking Mr Feynman! [Review]

Oct 22, 2012

Table of contents:

  1. “He fixes Radios by thinking”
  2. Feynman the Practical joker
  3. Latin or Italian
  4. Feynman on learning
  5. Safecracking
  6. Feynman the Musician
  7. Feynman the Artist
  8. The lessons that can be learned from Richard Feynman

“Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman: Adventures of a curious character” is a collection of stories from the life of theoretical physicist Richard Feynman as told by his friend, Ralph Leighton.

Feynman worked on The Manhattan Project which built the first Atomic bomb, and in 1965, he won the Nobel Prize for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics.

Feynman is regarded as one of the greatest physicists of all time and has made large contributions to Science through his work.

“Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman” is a fascinating collection of stories of Science, Life and the motivations and thoughts of a very interesting man. Feynman was not only fascinated by the Sciences, he also became a Musician, an Artist and a Safe Cracker!

“He fixes Radios by thinking”

Feynman’s curiosity for how things work started early in life when he became known around his home town for his ability to fix radios, despite being only a small boy. Feynman didn’t have any particularly training or education in how Radios worked, admitting that every time he was asked to fix a new problem that he had not encountered previously, he was stuck for what to do. But Feynman’s approach to solving why each Radio was not working would lead him on the path to Science.

It was his father’s teachings that made Feynman think like this. His father would teach Feynman something from the Encyclopaedia, but relate it to something in real life. From then on, Feynman would imagine things and how they relate to things in reality. This often lead him to be slow to pick up on the ideas and theories of his fellow Scientists and Mathematicians, but it also gave Feynman an uncanny ability to spot the errors in another person’s work because something would break once it became part of reality.

Feynman the Practical joker

A common theme throughout Feynman’s life is the constant desire to play practical jokes on people. Feynman had a distaste for authority, and seems to have loved the opportunity to see how far he could push things.

Whilst at MIT, Feynman was part of the Phi Beta Delta fraternity. Some of the fraternity liked to work in a particular room. Whenever anyone would disturb them from their work, they would immediately tell them to “Close the door!”. One day, someone had got sick of being told to close the door, and so they had it taken the door off it’s hinges.

The room also had another door, and so Feynman decided to take that door off it’s hinges too, and hide it downstairs in the basement.

When everyone woke up to find that one of the doors was missing, the fraternity had to find the culprit so they could get the door back.

After a week, the President of the fraternity decided to ask every member on their honour if they had stolen the door. The President went around the room with everyone saying they did not steal the door. When the President got to Feynman, he admitted to stealing the door, but nobody believed him!

Years later, Feynman once again admitted to stealing the door and was accused of lying because no one could remember he admitted it!

Latin or Italian

Feynman grew up in New York where there was a large number of Italian people living. Feynman would listen to an Italian radio station and fell in love with the rolling sounds of the Italian language. Feynman would imitate the sounds, despite not knowing any Italian.

From then on, when Feynman was out in the streets he would often shout at people in his pseudo Italian language and pretend that he was Italian, even speaking to Italian people that recognised the intonation, but believed that it must be a different dialect.

Feynman was able to get away with this only because of his ability to show complete confidence in what he was doing.

Feynman on learning

Throughout his life, Feynman had an interesting perspective on learning. Feynman would often find his own way of working things out so that he could understand them as part of reality, often in complete contrast to how you were taught in the book.

Whilst Feynman’s first interest was physics, he would often stray into other subject areas. Whilst studying Biology, he found that his fellow students had wasted their time memorising things they could have looked up in 15 minutes instead of working towards understanding.

Whilst in Brazil, Feynman found that he could ask a question and the students would immediately know the answer. But once he probed into the understanding of the question, he quickly found that the students did not actually understand the material, rather they simply knew how to pass the test.

Feynman was later asked to be on the board of Education for California. It was the board’s responsibility to choose what text books would be used in the schools in California.

Unlike his other board members, Feynman read and reviewed every book, finding that they had been written by people who did not fully grasp the subject.


Whilst at Los Alamos working on The Manhatten Project, Feynman became interested in safecracking because of the lack of security that held the important documents of the project. Feynman once again showing his distain for authority, his interest in breaking the system and in solving puzzles.

Feynman begin learning about cracking safes by taking the locks apart and studying how they worked. However, it took him a long time and a lot of experimenting before ever making any progress with safecracking. Feynman would try all sorts of approaches and experiments and theories to try and find a system that worked.

Feynman eventually found a method where he could find two of the three numbers of the combination that allowed a slight margin of error. This meant he only had to find the last number, but even with practice, this process would take hours.

One day, Feynman went to show his friend, who was also interested in locks, his technique. Some guys caught wind that Feynman was going to crack the safe, when in reality he was only going to show his friend his theory.

By pure chance, Feynman managed to find the correct numbers that would open the safe. From then on, Feynman had the reputation as a safecracker.

Feynman then developed a second technique for getting the combination of safes whilst they were already open. By wiggling the dial, he could get two of the three numbers without looking at the safe. So whenever he would be in someone’s room, he could be having a conversation and getting two of the three numbers from their safe by leaning on it.

After getting the two numbers, he would keep a record so that he would be able to crack the safe much quicker in the future. With his reputation as a safecracker, Feynman was often asked to open people’s safes if they were out of town and an important document was needed. Now that Feynman had the first two numbers of the combination, he could crack the safe by trying the first number within 20 times.

Feynman the Musician

Whilst teaching at The Centre of Physical Research in Brazil, Feynman discovered his enjoyment of Samba music. Feynman joined a Samba band that would be playing in the annual Carnival. He learned the Frigideira and practiced for weeks to be able to play during the carnival season.

Feynman recalls his lack of musical ability and how he was scared because he was the outsider who was not very good. But Feynman continued to practice and became an integral part of the band.

Later, whilst working at Caltech, Feynman took part in a play where he acted as a bongo player in a nightclub. Whilst at Los Alamos, Feynman had began playing with a drum as a way of entertaining himself. Feynman had no musical training and could only play the drum through his own self taught technique. When it came to reading music for the play he was completely out of his depth. Feynman had a friend called Ralph who was a musician and he asked him to join him in the play. Ralph was able to read the music and so he taught Feynman what he needed to do.

The Choreographer liked the way Feynman and Ralph played and asked them to record a tape of their music that she could use for a Ballet she was putting on in San Francisco. Feynman and Ralph went to San Francisco and performed the music they had spontaneously recorded for the live Ballet. The Choreographer later asked Feynman and Ralph to record a second tape for another Ballet she was producing. The Choreographer later took that Ballet on the road and ended up entering the Ballet in competitions first in the United States, and then across the World!

Feynman the Artist

Feynman grew up with a strong sense of disinterest in the arts. He would often debate with his friend Jirayr “Jerry” Zorthian about art and how the two men interpreted it differently.

Jerry argued that Scientists can’t see the beauty in art because they break it down into the scientific components, whilst Feynman argued that artists can’t see the beauty of Science within the art.

Feynman decided to learn how to draw from his artist friend, and then later by attending art classes.

The same process of Feynman’s discovery of music played out with his exploration of art. At first he was not very good at it, and approached the subject differently from how others approached it. But with continued practice and perseverance, Feynman gradually became good enough to be commissioned to draw for people and to exhibit his art in Museums and Galleries.

The lessons that can be learned from Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman lead a fascinating life that included breakthrough work, deep understanding of teaching and learning and a broad interest and comprehension in a number of different areas. I think there are two important lessons to learn from “Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman”.

Great work comes from curiosity

Feynman first began exploring Radios and Science because he was interested in them. Your greatest work will come from not striving to achieve something, but from your curiosity.

After Los Alamos, Feynman took up a role as a professor, but he was worried that he had not achieved anything of significance. This worry prevented him from doing really great work. It was not until he was advised that it was not his responsibility to do great work, that he finally was able to relax and enjoy Science again for curiosity.

Feynman was also able to become a Musician and an Artist, not because he wanted to perform or appear in an Art Gallery, but because he wanted to explore his curiosity of the subjects.

The important lesson to learn here is, don’t worry about what you are doing or working towards, allow your curiosity to lead the way.

Not knowing what you are doing

The second big lessons is to not be afraid to not know what you are doing. Feynman constantly seems like he did not have a clue what he was doing. Some of his greatest discoveries happened by chance and would not have happened if Feynman had been scared to face the fear of not knowing what he was doing.

It is also important to approach problems the way you see it. Just because there is a perceived right way to do something, does not mean it is the right way of doing it. Feynman looked at the world and his work through a different lens that allowed him to pick up on the nuances of a subject in a different way to his colleagues.

Don’t be scared to do what you think is right, even if it is against the better judgement of other people.

Here is an interview of Richard Feynman from 1981 where he talks about his “Pleasure of finding things out”. This is particularly interesting because he talks about his way of seeing the world, how he thinks of problems and some of the events of the book.

“Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman” is an fascinating and entertaining book about a remarkable man’s life. His approach to his subject, his work and his life is extremely interesting and very funny.

Some of the most interesting parts of the book are actually just how Feynman acted in the weird situations he found himself in, interacting with women, in bars and at the various places he lived and worked.

Buy Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman on Amazon (Affiliate link).

Philip Brown


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