Sunday, May 10, 2009

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Feynman, Richard & Leighton, Ralph)

Rating: 5
Year: 1985
Genre: Nonfiction / Autobiography
Read again? Eventually

Time for a Lackey-free break again--and a break from science fiction and fantasy. What better than a biography of one of the great minds of physics in the mid-to-late 20th Century? The title comes from a "social error," as he puts it. It was his first tea-time at Princeton and he was asked whether he wanted cream or lemon in his tea. When he asked for both, the hostess corrected him: "Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh. Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman."

The book's done as a series of short stories from Feynman's past, as told to Leighton. It's clear from the first that Feynman had an insatiable curiosity about everything around him, and anything that caught his attention was studied with a rigor, intensity, and span of attention that makes me feel like I'm wasting time just sitting and reading, let alone writing a freaking blog! Fenyman was repairing radios at an age when I was just tearing them apart to see what was inside:

One day I got a telephone call: "Mister, are you Richard Feynman ?"
"This is a hotel. We have a radio that doesn't work, and would like it repaired. We understand you might be able to do something about it."
"But I'm only a little boy," I said. "I don't know how--"
"Yes, we know that, but we'd like you to come over anyway."
It was a hotel that my aunt was running, but I didn't know that. I went over there with--they still tell the story--a big screwdriver in my back pocket. Well, I was small, so any screwdriver looked big in my back pocket.
How cool is that? A little kid fixing radios, treating each one as a puzzle to solve, thinking his way to a conclusion (I think at his age I learned about electricity by sticking a house key in an electrical outlet), and this was his approach to everything. Learning for the joy of learning, the satisfaction of solving a puzzle. And nearly everything was a puzzle for this man! Physics, the behavior of ants, biology, chemistry, locks (both key and combination).

He met or worked with the giants--Einstein. Fermi, the list is a roll call of physics.

One sobering topic he discusses is the state of school text books and how they're chosen. This was in the early 1960's in California. He was asked to sit in on the State Curriculum Commission, who would supposedly read the textbook offerings and render opinions on them. Feynman was chosen because he worked with math, and math books were the Commission's current project. He quickly found that the publishers were guiding the Commission members; apparently Fenyman was the only person who actually read any of them. He read all of them. Three hundred pounds of books. Seventeen feet of books, and they were almost all crap from a mathematics standpoint. One book got rave reviews from all the other Commission members, who had obviously never even opened the damn thing: because of printing problems, placeholder copies were sent out with blank pages.

The sad thing is, to this day, the publishers have the run of the organizations that pick out school books, and they're still crap. Back in April of '09 there was a good rant about this subject at Pharyngula (most of the ranting is in the Comments, and there are plenty of good links therein as well).

Overall, this is an entertaining read, but I doubt I'll go back to it anytime soon, if only because there's so much more to read in my pile of stuff, and the Lackey Train is leaving the station.

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