I love the works of Richard Feynman, and I especially love biographies of famous scientist. But this one is surely the best one I have read so far. It shows the human, funny and artistic side to one of the most prominent physicists of all time. There are so many things to love about this biography, so let me briefly outline the main things I learned.
The author discusses his rejection of the invitation to work at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. Work in the institute allows scientists and mathematicians to forget about teaching and focus solely on research. Nonetheless, Feynman said that many of his ideas came from questions asked by students and from reorganising knowledge in his head every time he had to teach a course. I have certainly experienced this myself when explaining a concept to a friend while preparing for a test or just casually talking about physics. Getting yourself locked in an echo chamber with people at the same educational level and with a similar background as you can only lead to stagnation. Therefore, I’m quite excited to be a TA once in university, because the students might teach me something too.
Secondly, you need to balance science and art. Feynman discusses his adventures of playing bongo drums while delivering guest lectures in Brazil and becoming obsessed with samba music. Drums became his passion for the rest of his life and he sometimes gave performances. Furthermore, he also got interested in painting despite very limited skill. He actually got quite good, at least according to his account. Nevertheless, this goes to show that balance is tremendously important for the mind, as one of the greatest scientists in modern history played bongos in the evenings instead of reading the newest edition of Nature. Personally, I try to achieve balance by making beats and playing guitar. While indirect, I feel like it helps me organise ideas and just puts me in a more creative headspace.
Thirdly, experiment. Being able to apply textbook knowledge to unfamiliar situation sounds like a school cliche, but it is crucial to actually get a grasp on science. The author discusses his tinkering with radios and electronics as a teenager and Feynman diagrams are a product of wanting to achieve visual clarity. He played many pranks on his colleagues at Los Alamos when picking locks, applying combinatorics and an understanding of mechanisms. He illustrates the importance of understanding physics in context through another story about teaching in Brazil. One of his students could perfectly answer questions on refraction if they were presented with textbook terminology, i.e. a plate with a certain refractive index. Nonetheless, when told to show an example of such a plate, which of course could be glass or plastic, the students were clueless. This might just be a funny hyperbole, but still we should not memorise equations but actually visually and conceptually understand what is going on. Youtube is a great place for that.
This book is hilarious and informative, without at all trying to be the latter. This is a must read for any future physicist or for anyone wanting to read a good biography. It isn’t very much tied to astrophysics, but it’s too great to not be talked about on this blog.
Feynman, R. P., Leighton, R., Hutchings, E., & Hibbs, A. R. (1997). Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) (Reprint ed.). W. W. Norton & Company.
Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman by Richard Feynman – review. (2012, March 18). The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/childrens-books-site/2012/mar/18/review-surely-youre-joking-richard-feynman