Feb 1, 2017

Thoughts On Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

My friend, Ablorde, got my Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! for Christmas. The book wasn't on my radar at all: I knew Feynman was a prominent scientist (I probably could have come up with physicist if pressed), but not much beyond that. I certainly didn't know he had a semi-autobiographical book (two, actually). But Ablorde's recommendation mirrored those on the book's cover: outrageously funny anecdotes from a brilliant mind.

Ablorde, et. al weren't wrong: Feynman is funny. The collection is a loosely connected series of stories laying out Feynman's life: from his early explorations in fostering his intellectual curiosity as a child to winning the Nobel Prize. He colors outside those lines fairly frequently: talking about his love (lust?) of women, dancing, and exploring life. You very quickly realize that this isn't a crusty old man who just fiddles with equations in the evenings. But as open as Feynman is about certain elements of his personal life, he's also conspicuously quiet on others.

Over the course of his life, Feynman was married three times. The only context in which he mentions his first wive is her infirmity (she dies of tuberculosis). He spends some more on the second: a proposal via letter, an exhausting honeymoon that he didn't enjoy, a quick flame of a marriage (just a couple of years), and then collapse amid continuous argument. He mentions his third wife only enough to know that she existed.

One of the things that stood out for me from the book is how much our societal expectations around the treatment of gender and race have evolved in a relatively short time. Feynman wasn't beating women or leading lynch mobs (as far as I know), but the sheer insensitivity with which he talks about women and minorities is bizarre and foreign to my modern sensibilities. One chapter is on his firmly-learned lesson that his romantic results improved inversely with the quality and consideration with which he treated women.

Unfortunately, the most prominent emotions I felt from the book weren't levity or humor. It actually made me sad. Feynman strikes me as a consummate liar. I can't go so far as to say that he's compensating for some darker aspect of his life that he can't address directly, but there's enough evidence in the book to suggest that most of his stories are exaggerated to the point that they bear little resemblance to reality. I know that's the whole point (reference the title) and people think it's funny, but it just makes me sad for some reason.

That being said, it wasn't all gloomy. I found the story quite inspiring. Feynman values hard work, modesty, and rationality. He achieves great success and notability through the diligent application of those values.