An interesting life of a mischievous genius

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character” by Richard P. Feynman

This is a fun and witty memoir by an immensely curious person that sees life from a child’s adventurous eyes. It is filled with crazy self-experiments to answer his queries, from many physics problems, to animal behaviour, unlocking the Mayan codex, debunking a “mind reader”, performing magic himself, how to smell people like dogs do, his weird obsession in breaking a safe, experimenting with mysticism and hallucination, to the more serious matters such as the Manhattan Project that he was a part of.

Throughout the book Richard Feynman seems to be able to demonstrate a quick understanding of anything he’s focusing on at that time, and he can then makes the complicated things into more simplistic and efficient. He also shows a consistent display of integrity as the fundamental part of his carefree attitude, that he can live life without burden because he’s always honest and never breaks his values. In fact, if there’s something out of line and conflicting with his values, he will just quit (like what happened in his role in approving physics textbook for schools).

And if there’s only one key lesson that we can take away from his life, it is this: to never take data at face value, even opinions by the many experts, and instead question everything and test it yourself. And more often than not he defies the common consensus and prevailes as the logical winner. That’s why he stands out from the rest of the pack and can create so many breakthroughs.

While he is undoubtedly one of the greatest physics minds that have ever lived, and a solid role model for living with integrity, the appeal of the book is actually not the achievements of Feynman. But instead, it is his lighter human side that makes it so enjoyable to read. He hanged out in Vegas to learn about gambling, learned to pick up women in a strip bar in Arizona, volunteered to work for the army, self-taught himself engineering, went to Brazil and join a bongo group and performed with them at a carnival, how he ended having his name on a patent for a nuclear-powered rocket propelled airplanes, that one time he almost got beaten up in a bar in Buffalo, picking up a hobby of nude drawing, failing a mental health test, and the list goes on.

It is quite surprising to find the genius man – who won the Nobel Prize in physics and rub elbows with the likes of Einstein, Bohr and Oppenheimer – is such a goofy character enjoying his curious life. I especially love the way he dismisses the Nobel Prize as something menial and unimportant (he even considered refusing the award) and looks more enthusiastic on, for example, the way the Watusi tribe in Belgium Congo play their drums. And this it what makes this scrappy diary a truly entertaining one.