Day 29: Surely You Are Joking , Mr. Feynman!

…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!

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11 Responses to Day 29: Surely You Are Joking , Mr. Feynman!

  1. Glad to read this.

    I am of course familiar with the name of Richard Feynman.
    He was a towering giant in the field of physics and I recall that his Published Notes in Physics was part of the set of books that many engineering students had on their bookshelves during their first and second year of engineering studies. My physics teacher at BITS Pilani, where I studied physics as one of my subjects, in 1967, was a student of Richard Feynmam and literally hero-worshipped him and often persuaded us to read his notes even though much of it was out our syllabus.

    I did not know about Feynman’s other interests and these personal details about his life and marriage.
    Thanks for sharing.
    You are approaching the blogathon finish line.
    Hang on! Just two more posts to go.


    • I too was familiar with the name of Feynman because my father is a physicist and volumes of Feynman’s ‘ Lectures in Physics ‘series have adorned his bookshelf ever since I remember. My father has also read, and thoroughly enjoyed, both books mentioned in this post.

      Feynman’s personal life was in a way predicated by his early marriage to Arline. After Arline’s death,Feynman was unable to have lasting relationships for a long time. Only in 1960, at age forty-two, did he really ‘settle down’ by virtue of a marriage that would last his lifetime and finally had children–one of whom was adopted.

  2. Lifesong says:

    I had to delurk after reading this 🙂 This is an all time favourite book of mine too. I love Feynman. Do read “What do you care what other people think” if you have not already read it. I am sure you’ll love that too 🙂

    • Ooh, glad to meet another Feynman-fan 🙂
      I have been wanting to read ‘What do you care what other people think’ for some time now, Lifesong– its sure to be a lovely read!

  3. Jas says:

    I am definitely going to pick this one up. Seems like just my kind of book 🙂

  4. simple girl says:

    okay I am tempted to pick up the first one and become a fan .. 🙂 .. nice post as usual .

  5. chattywren says:

    Will look this book up, sometime,sounds interesting!

  6. SA says:

    I bumped in to this post and this is exactly what I needed to get hooked to your blog.
    This one is an all time favorite. His lectures are available on YouTube and I keep watching them.

    I was introduced to Feyman back in 2001 by an enthusiastic professor when I was pursuing Physics. I fell in love with his theories, humor, philosophy :). He made this world so imaginative for an 18 year old…

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