At long last I finally read Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! It’s a wonderful look inside the life of the quirky physicist, Richard Feynman. The man experienced life like few others, and his writing is surprisingly open and accessible.

A few passages really hit me. Early on he describes various jobs he had as a youth. He was always trying improve how things worked, from cutting beans to manning a switchboard. The lesson: “I learned there that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world.” Innovation should not be taken lightly. It’s very hard.

As a teenager Feynman taught himself a lot about math. He developed many skills outside the traditional education system. “A different box of tools” is his description of it. In grad school he became known as a sort of integral guru: “I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s.” Diverse experience is of great benefit, even in the seemingly restricted world of mathematics.

Feynman was involved in the Manhattan Project. As work ramped up, there were all kinds of questions outside of physics that needed answered. Securing information from enemy spies was a bit of a passion for Feynman - he was very interested in lock picking. He was constantly breaching security in order to prove that paperwork wasn’t stored safely enough. “Los Alamos was a very co-operative place, and we felt it our responsibility to point out things that should be improved.”

The California State Board of Education asked Feynman to sit on a panel judging math and science books. This panel would help determine which books were in the curriculum. He got in a bit of a fight over expense reimbursements. He did not understand how the Board could trust him with the education of future generations, but would not trust him when he said he took a flight to San Francisco and it cost $X. “I feel that human beings should treat human beings like human beings.” Obviously.

After winning the Nobel Prize, Feynman speaking engagements were in high demand. He did not enjoy speaking to crowds with varying levels of knowledge. “My problem is, I like to please the people who come to hear me, and I can’t do it if everybody and his brother wants to hear: I don’t know my audience.” He preferred to speak to a niche. A niche he could understand and to whom he could provide value.

My favorite lesson of the entire book was what I’ll call Feynman’s Law of Play. This page covers it nicely. Feynman found an interesting problem, he studied it, he explained it. It wasn’t directly important at all. But it led to something. It was interesting to him and it led to bigger, more profound discoveries. Nobel Prize-worthy discoveries.

Jun 17, 2011    Subscribe · Email Me · Twitter · GitHub