Exploring The Life of Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman is one of the most interesting characters to ever walk the earth. He made his name in science, as a physicist; his ability to explain very simply complicated ideas, excite and inspire students, his unique character, and his remarkable intellect captured the imagination of the world — and it still does to this day; his life story is inspiring, compelling, fascinating, unbelievable.

There are, today and throughout history, many gifted, extremely talented and brilliant people — scientists, mathematicians, philosophers, poets, teachers, writers, entrepreneurs, and so on — but Richard Feynman is rightfully in a league of his own. This isn’t to discredit the magnificence of mind and achievements of the other greats, but to highlight how unique this genius was.

The are 3 popular books on Feynman: What Do You Care What Other People Think, Surely You’re joking Mr Feynman, and The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman.

In the first half of What Do You Care What People Think?, Feynman tells us about his introduction to Science, about the admirable — and very intelligent — way his father planted the seeds of a physicist in young Richard’s head, that would later make him into one of the most famous men in the world at his time; and certainly one of the smartest. He then tells us — in the form of engaging stories, funny observations and no-nonsense prose — about his education; about his first love, Arlene, and how he dealt with her painful diagnosis of a — and eventual succumbing to — terminal illness; how he managed being labelled sexist, in true Feynman style; and much more in between.

The second half is dedicated to his involvement with identifying the cause of the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster in 1986. After much hesitation and restraint, he eventually said yes to working for the one employee he never wanted to — the goverment — as part of a presidential commission. Long story short, after much investigation on his own behalf (which he shouldn’t of been doing — and he knew it, of course) he unearthed not only the cause of the explosion, but also a severe culture issue within the heart of Nasa: ignorance of dangerous and incorrect assumptions, poor communication between mangers and engineers, and a lack of transparency — just to name a few. Again, the way he tells it makes what could easily be a boring, scientific, repetitive story a compelling and very engaging one. In the appendix, you’ll find even more thoughts from Feynman about his findings at NASA, but it’s a more scientific-based monologue and therefore will only appeal to those with an interest in either space rockets or physics in general.

The second book is where the fascinating world of Feynman finally reveals itself. If you’re just getting into Feynman, the previous book is certainly the best place to start; it’s an easy read, covers his beginnings and most of the ‘major’ events in his life, and is a great introduction — for it leaves you wanting to know more. That is when Surely you’re joking Mr Feynman should be at the top of your reading list. Quotation marks are around the word major above because it becomes clear once you read this book — about the way he dipped his toes into many different fields, subjects and disciplines; how he applied his philosophy of life (to embrace uncertainty; to have fun discovering for yourself; to have pleasure in finding things out) to everything he did — that any one of the events from his life could be considered major when compared with the average person’s life.

Once again he talks about his introduction to Science from his father, and about his first love Arlene (Including the funny story of the flat tyres), but only briefly. I won’t name all of his endeavours here, but they include: how at a young age he became sought-after radio engineer; learning Italian pronunciation, or at least, pretending to; finding shortcuts and easy ways to do complicated things, such as developing a new method of slicing potatoes; becoming a prestigious safecracker; understanding the way ants develop trails; becoming a great seducer of women, by being the opposite of a gentleman; being right, and standing by what you stand for, as a matter of principle; getting really good at painting, and later selling and running exhibitions under the name Ofey; learning the frhigideria and later playing with a Brazilian band in carnivals; and experimentation with lucid-dreaming, ketamine and flotation tanks.

The third book was first released in 1999 — 11 years after Feynman’s death. Its a compilation of the best and most insightful works of Feynman — his letters, lectures and interviews — this time written in a structured, cogent and precise style. (Feynman’s earlier books lack a certain amount of grammar, and — perhaps for some people — therefore, clarity and appeal.) The editing of his works was done by Jeffrey Robbins, a former student and friend of Richard Feynman: if anyone were to take Feynman’s works and edit them for better reading, he is probably the right man. However, although it does make for easier reading, and doesn’t omit any key details, I do not judge this book to be better than his other two books — because those books, despite their lack of grammar and care for it, felt like Feynman had written every word himself (perhaps half of each were lectures transcribed, but they were done word-for-word) and that has something appealing, interesting and engaging about it. Furthermore, as this book’s title contains the words ’The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman’, that of course means that the little stories included in his earlier books (especially Surely You’re joking Mr Feynman) are not included.

Of the three books, Surely You’re joking Mr Feynman is certainly my favourite, though I do think all three are a must if you really want to get to know Feynman. Of course, there are many more books written on him, such as James Gleick’s Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, Don’t You Have Time to Think? by Feynman himself, and The Character of Physical Law, a transcriptions from a series of lectures did for the cameras in 1960. If you’ve read none of the books and are interested in learning about Feynman’s rollercoaster life, read the following books in order (but of course each book can be your starting or ending point):

What Do You Care What Other People Think
Surely You’re joking Mr Feynman
Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman
Don’t You Have Time to Think
Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman