Sunday, November 9, 2014

Book Review(s): Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman & What Do You Care What Other People Think?

I'm reviewing these two works together as "What Do You Care" is essentially an extension of "Surely You're Joking".  Both are written in the same style and contain the same themes.

If you're not familiar with Richard Feynman a brief primer on him is as follows--a NYC born and bread theoretical physicist he was a major participant in the Manhattan project and went on to win the Nobel prize along with rubbing shoulders as an intellectual equal with Einstein, Oppenheimer, Bethe, Bohr and others.  He has become well known in popular culture due to his participation in the Challenger disaster investigation as well as his decidedly non-traditional scientist personality.

The books are all told in first person by Feynman himself as he recounts in numerous short vignettes various occurrences in his life that shed light on his various viewpoints.  In truth all these viewpoints all support his main viewpoint--which is that in virtually all circumstances the perceived correct way to do things is wrong and that people do not often enough question authority or make their own path.  In this aspect the title the second work "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" more closely sums up the overarching themes than anything else.

I also found "What Do You Care" to be the stronger of the two works.  The short vignettes become largely forgettable after a while as they skip from one moment in his life to the next.  You get an overall feeling as to his irreverence and brilliance (sometimes wandering into inflated egotism) but they don't carry a great deal of weight as they involve mundane things like how he picked up on various women or played the bongos in plays or learned to pick locks/crack safes--all interesting occurrences in their own right but not anything that stays with you emotionally besides your realization that Mr. Feynman was a really unique character, memorable for reasons besides just his massive intelligence and impact on our understanding of the fundamental functioning of the universe.

"What Do You Care" contains an extended section on Feynman's involvement with the Challenger investigation and this is the most valuable part of the books.  Here we see Feynman at his best--not dealing with trivial matters but in focusing his abilities and stubbornness at a single complex issue.  he cuts through the bureaucracy and politics involved in finding the blame for its catastrophic failure.  It can be legitimately be said that if he wasn't involved in the investigation that its cause would likely have gone unpublished.

If I had one of the two to recommend it would then be "What Do You Care" though both are worth consuming for their the mindset that they convey--question everything, make your own path and don't give a fuck what anyone else thinks.

No comments: