Monday, March 11, 2013

Book Review: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Powell's Books
Barnes & Noble
Richard Feynman - © 1985

A fascinating foray into the fun yet formidable physics of Mr. Feynman. Actually, this book is less about physics and more about the life of Nobel Prize Laureate, Richard Feynman. (Richard just rolled over in his grave; if you want to know why -- read this book!) Once I adjusted my expectations from education to entertainment, I absorbed every word. He was always interesting, at times very entertaining and despite his obvious genius he had an utter lack of pretentiousness and conceit that I previously assumed afflicted all venerated scientists. I closed this book wishing for more and feeling inspired to pursue my own adventures in curiosity. What could I achieve if, like Richard, I abandoned my Western culture imperative of accomplishment through suffering and played with my talents in ways I felt was fun?

Richard Feynman’s world was driven by curiosity, which in turn developed his enviable intellectual toolbox that unlocked the mysteries of the natural world to which it was applied. It might be unlocking the energy of plutonium for the Manhattan Project or perhaps the secrets of ant trails, or maybe, just for fun, he’d decipher a Mayan codex while his wife trudged up and down pyramids in the hot Mexican sun. Whatever it was, through his careful application of the scientific method and patience, locks opened for him and revealed their wares. His interests also extended beyond science.  Not surprisingly, he became something of a safe cracker.. again, just for fun. He learned to draw so that he could render the beauty of physics in pieces of art. (And apparently the naked female form, for fun.) He wanted to learn a language so he did so he learned Spanish, then converted it to Portuguese so he could spend time in teaching in Brazil. He like drumming, so he did; sometimes half naked --in the forest --alone --at night. In all things that captured his interest, including the romancing the ladies, Richard dove in with his energy and intellect and consistently “worked very hard” to get what he wanted. And he usually did.

Richard was rare among scientists in that his ego came secondary to the science and fun he was having doing it. He refused to become part of the social elite and followed his curiosity wherever it would take him. Except to LSD, although very curious about hallucinations he declined for fear he would “hurt the machine.” Luckily he came to know people who were developing a sensory deprivation tank and was able to experience hallucinations. But then again, who doesn’t? Pssht.

What I Took From This Book

Just For Fun!
In our Western culture there is an almost subliminal idea that we aren’t making valuable contributions or working hard enough unless we are suffering to some degree. It simply doesn’t work that way, we do our best work, our most valuable work, while having fun. I think it’s the only way to do great things. If you’re suffering, you will probably only do just enough to finish the job. If you’re very disciplined, you can probably even do a good job, but your unique potential will forever remain undiscovered because you’re not having enough fun to keep yourself interested. After the Manhattan project Richard feared he was burnt out on physics and his ideas were spent. Then he resolved to “play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.” The works that earned him a Nobel Prize “... came from piddling around with the wobbling plate.”

When I follow an idea that I find amusing, I find it easy to get into a state of flow, where I lose track of time and consciousness of my surroundings and produce my best work. When I am suffering in my work is driven by force of will and the result is stunted, unimaginative and lacking in curiosity, imagination and love. The clock ticks forward and ticks backward. Learning and life are supposed to be fun, that way we’ll keep doing it. Exceptional work is what we do while we’re having fun.

Learning By Rote
During Richard’s time teaching in Brazil he was horrified to discover that although his students were bright they understood nothing of what they were taught. Prior to his arrival, the students had the textbook memorized but could relate nothing of the physics they were learning to the natural world. For example, after discussing a section on polarized light that the students knew cold, he gave them some polaroid paper and talked about figuring out which way the light was polarized by using light reflected from the bay outside. The students were lost.

He discovered the textbooks did not encourage any real world experimentation. Sixty some years later, we’re not in much better shape. I learned most of my higher math in a similar fashion, I knew that the calculus I was learning could be applied to tell me how much material needed to fill a three dimensional space with a curve. I should be able to calculate the area under a curve or the max/mins of different story problem like setups. But, I couldn’t. I couldn’t do the math unless it was laid out like all the other equations I had previously solved in my math book. If it was slightly different, or I had to set up the equation from scratch, I was (am) lost. It didn’t matter, I still got my A and passed the course. I knew it was happening at the time and oh-welled it. Now a decade later after getting my degree, it’s all lost. Had I understood the concepts and could apply them, I probably could work back into it pretty easily. Now if I want to go back for my bachelor’s degree, I’ll have to re-do all my math credits and memorize it all over again. *shiver*

Don’t Trust the Experts
Experts are only experts because no-one has proved them wrong... yet. Although it sometimes doesn’t seem that way, science is still in its infancy. The more I learn, the more I realize how little we actually know about, well, everything.

After unknowingly using faulty data from prior experts in his experiments, Richard resolved to always redo the math himself ensuring the integrity of the experiments and verifying all the data he was going to use in the experiment he actually wanted to perform. I remember doing poorly on an physics exam in high school because the answer from the first question was used in the next and so on. My answer for number 1 was wrong and therefore snowballed and ruined my entire exam. Always go back to beginning, verify the work was done (sometimes even if it is your own) to your standards before getting rolling on your new work. Otherwise you may find yourself building a dream home on a rotten foundation.

In our world the results of scientific studies so often coincide with the interest group funding the study. Richard believed in giving all the information related to an experiment, those results that had positive, negative and benign ramifications. The activity is irrelevant, whether it be writing, manufacturing, engineering whatever, integrity is crucial to advancing our culture towards better, healthier futures, but unfortunately it is deemed a luxury rather than a basic right. The last paragraph says it the best: “So I have just one wish for you --the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you always have that freedom.” Indeed.

This book was based on a compilation of taped interviews with Richard, which after a while gave me the feeling I was sitting opposite him on a sofa sipping a drink; just reminiscing with a friend. Richard Feynman was not only a gifted scientist but incredibly interesting and down to earth, the only physicist that I could ever imagine hanging out with --for fun.  Although, I think I'd insist on paying for my own drink.

Ofey Art
See some of Richard's art at the Museum Syndicate website.

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