…is the name of one of my all-time favourite books–one which I keep on my bedside table just so I can reach it easily any time I want to . I had received it as a gift from my brother some ten years back and must have reread some portions of it several times. It is hilarious, wise and insightful–and full of a fascinating love for life and all that comes with it.
Richard Feynman, whose reminiscences as narrated to his friend Ralph Leighton form the subject of this book, was a renowned physicist and Nobel laureate who was also intimately involved with what was called the Manhattan Project–the top secret project in which thousands of American scientists worked on the nuclear bomb during the second World War. He was awarded the Nobel prize in Physics in 1965–but Physics was by no means his only passion.
During his Manhattan Project days at Los Alamos, New Mexico, he entertained himself in his spare time on weekdays by picking locks and playing drums and achieved considerable proficiency in both. He practiced his safe-cracking skills on his colleagues, often scaring them witless.
The weekends though were reserved for his wife Arline who was suffering from tuberculosis and was lodged at a sanatorium a couple of hours away from Los Alamos. Arline died in 1945, only three years after marriage. Feynman was twenty-seven at the time. There is a poignant bit where he says how he had been prepared for her death and it didn’t affect him much at the time. He didn’t cry until months later in New York when he saw some nice dresses at a shop-front and instinctively thought, Arline would have liked one of those. That was too much for him.
Despite the emotional upheaval of a much-loved spouse’s death, he continued to learn anything and everything that caught his fancy–some of the funniest anecdotes pertain to his experiences in trying to learn new languages. Well into his forties, he took to sketching and became good enough at it to hold exhibitions of his own. He was also careful to use a pseudonym when sketching, just to make sure they didn’t sell only because a Nobel-prize winning physicist had made them!
He of course also continued to play elaborate pranks on unsuspecting people.
The most awesome aspect of this unique memoir is that it wasn’t even really written–it is only an edited version of taped, free-wheeling conversations Feynman had with his drummer friend Ralph Leighton–and yet, how it dazzles with sheer brilliance! How it makes you laugh! Feynman sure was one extraordinary person.
I recently also read ‘Don’t You Have Time to Think’, another book on Feynman which is a collection of his personal/ professional correspondences compiled with much love by his daughter. I’ll admit this upfront– you have to be a fan of someone to want to read the letters he wrote and received. But then you only have to read ‘Surely You Are Joking, Mr. Feynman!’ to become his fan for life.
Among the letters are some he wrote to his parents, trying to explain why he wanted to get married to his high-school sweetheart when she was already sick with TB. His parents were very worried that he would contract the illness from her, and he tried his best to convince them why that was unlikely, citing the opinions of the doctors he had consulted. Of course his parents were not convinced, and he went ahead regardless, but the letters in themselves are as eloquent an expression of true love as I have ever read. Hats off, Mr. Feynman!