“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”

Adventures of a curious character

By: Richard P. Feynman

Published: 1985

Read: 2020


A collection of anecdotes from the life of Richard Feynmann, the Nobel prize winning physicist. Or, what happens when you turn stubborness, curiosity, raw intelligence and fun simultaneously up to 11 with little regard for status or social norms.

Stubborn curiosity and brain power explain his thirst for investigation, learning and solving the world’s puzzles. Helpful tools in the career of a physics professor, who at a young age becomes involved in the making of the atomic bomb, dabbles in chemistry and biology, wins the Nobel prize and much more. But this book is rarely about any of that.

The tales are mostly about what happens when you mix in his fun loving and happily socially irresponsible personality. Enter a world where safes are there to be cracked, bongos need to be banged and the pretty girls are dancing. Adventures are pursued with a healthy disregard for authority, slightly reckless behavior, and a lot of jokes and pranks.

Worth Reading:

An honest, highly personal book written in a direct, self-deprecating and loveably dated tone. His relentless energy and continuous awe about the world shine through.

The casino story is interesting (after calculating the average odds, Feynman loses more money than he anticipates). This may be one of the few puzzles that Feynman wan’t interested in solving. But he helped solve it indirectly. According to Ed Thorp (“A Man For All Markets“), in the mid 1950s, he and Feynman met at a dinner party. Feyman told him that there was no way to beat the odds (at roulette). Apparently the meeting inspired Thorp (and Claude Shannon) to start experimenting and prove Feynman wrong, as they did eventually.

Key Takeaway:

  • Stubborn curiosity.
  • You don’t have to be smarter than everyone, just be smarter than the average.

Key Concepts:

  • Curiosity and stubborness.
    • Solving puzzles.
    • The drive to keep going to find out what is the matter.
  • Clusters of talent.
    • Concentrations of talent provide motivation and desire to keep going.
  • Variety.
    • Learn what the rest of the world is like.
  • Understanding new theories.
    • Make up specific examples.
  • Science.
    • Not: what one word means in other words.
    • Ask questions (what, why, etc.) and experiment (experience nature).
  • Religious and scientific awe.
    • Both share an appreciation of the beauty of nature.
      • The diversity and complexity of the world.
      • Things appear and behave differently.
    • Religious awe:
      • The emotion felt realizing that everything is controlled by (one) god.
    • Scientific awe:
      • The emotion felt realizing that everything is organized according to the same set of physical laws.
      • An appreciation of the mathematical beauty of nature.
  • Inequality.
    • Differences between countries are not due to an inequality of “stuff”.
    • Due to an inequality of the “power to make stuff”.
      • Knowledge, capital, etc.
  • Beating the wisdom of crowds.
    • Crowds: average opinion, including the opinions of the less able or qualified.
    • Beat the crowd: don’t have to be smarter than everyone, just be smarter than the average.
  • Scientific integrity: utter honesty.
    • First: don’t fool yourself.
      • You are the easiest person to fool.
    • Next: don’t fool others.
      • Give all information needed to help others judge the value of your contribution.
      • Not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

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