Fun with Feynman

My dad and I recently led a book-club discussion of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman: Adventures of a Curious Character. The book contains the edited reminiscences of physicist Richard Feynman. Both my dad and I read and enjoyed this book in the 1980s when it was released, and we thought it would be a fun book for our club to review.

In the book Feynman discusses his early life as a “curious character,” including some of the funny and sometimes lucrative experiments that he conducted as a boy in his homemade laboratory. He attended MIT and Princeton, worked in Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project to develop the atomic bomb, then taught at Cornell and Caltech. Along the way he picked up a Nobel Prize for his work in physics, learned Brazilian drumming, became an artist, and famously demonstrated the Challenger O-Ring failure as a member of the Rogers Commission investigating the shuttle disaster.

Feynman died in 1988, three years after Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman was published. In this and other popular works, including audio and video talks, Feynman conveys the sheer pleasure he took in studying the physical world.

The importance of popular science

I taught a Sunday school class on what seems to be a conflict between science and religion in our culture, and to prepare I read Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future by Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum. In it the authors comment that though some scientists believe the public is disinterested in science, we are actually positive about it; we’re just removed from it most of the time. And we shouldn’t be. Impending discoveries from creation of new microbes in the laboratory to the artificial retardation of human aging will have profound legal, political, and social consequences to our society and the individuals in it. Scientists know what’s coming and they discuss the issues regularly among themselves, but they aren’t always talking to the rest of us. The authors suggest that positive, engaging scientific communication is essential to renewing the general public’s understanding of scientific issues.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum mention Carl Sagan as an example of someone able to communicate science effectively to the public. I think that Richard Feynman was another example. His books and lectures effectively show how life can be enriched by just thinking about the physical world. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman gives you the sense of the enthusiasm with which Feynman approached life and his work as a physicist, and it helps the reader see how someone like Feynman approaches scientific questions and discovers solutions that shape our world.

Solving life’s puzzles

The editor inserts a lot of exclamation points into the Feynman transcripts, and I suspect that is because Feynman’s life was a series of exclamation points. Feynman characterizes his musings about science in one word: Fun! He comments that from an early age he had what he calls “puzzle drive. It’s what accounts for my wanting to decipher Mayan hieroglyphics, for trying to open safes.”

For some reason everyone in our reading group enjoyed Feynman’s story of observing ant behavior during his time in graduate school at Princeton. He wanted to know how ants found things (like sugar) and if they had a sense of geometry. He knew the answers had already been discovered, but he wanted to find them for himself. He performed a series of experiments with string and sugar. Among other things, these simple experiments determined that ants are not directed by an innate sense of geometry, but that they leave a trail and follow it back to wherever they came from. Interestingly, Feynman performed similar experiments on Brazilian leaf-cutting ants when he visited there much later in life and on ants around his bathtub when he worked at Caltech, proving that his sense of curiosity, about ants at least, was life long. This story also shows the reader how to go about observing things that happen in the physical world and how to draw logical conclusions from what you observe.

Feynman’s “puzzle drive” led him to learn about everything from how to solve complex physics problems to how to effectively pick up women in bars. In Los Alamos he developed communication codes to evade censors and he made bets with buddies about what information would and would not make it through the censors. He experimented with ways to evade security systems and pick the locks on cabinets holding top-secret documents. With lock picking his purpose was instructive, but he retells the story with glee. Even when he was serious, Feynman took great pleasure in solving a mystery. This book describes, from start to finish, a man who took joy in solving puzzles of the physical world and appreciating the puzzles of the social world. He was a teacher, a dancer, an artist, a drummer, a husband, a father, and a friend.

Note: You can hear Feynman talking and learn more about this “curious character” at a creative and enjoyable website, Feynman Online, at www.feynman.com.

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