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The SciFri Book Club Falls For Mr. Feynman

Oct 26, 2012



Time for our monthly meeting of the SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club. Here with me are SCIENCE FRIDAY's multimedia editor, Flora Lichtman, and our senior producer, Annette Heist. And this month we have the physics - physics on our to-do list, right? A classic book by Richard Feynman, Annette?

ANNETTE HEIST, BYLINE: That's right. It is called "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character."

FLATOW: How did we pick that one?

HEIST: A group effort. I think we had wanted to do a classic again this month, and I think this is one of the titles we talked about. I went to the bookstore to see how long it was.


FLATOW: You mean the book, not the store.

HEIST: The book. And I don't know if you remember this, Ira, but we used to have a poster of Richard Feynman hanging up in our office...


HEIST: ...a long time ago. And I always wanted to read this book, so here we are.

FLATOW: He is a great icon of physics.


FLATOW: And I think a lot of people have heard about him, and I think this is probably his most famous book.

HEIST: Everyone seems to know this book or have - I feel like I - when I mention it to people, I get, oh, I read that. I love that book. I love that book. But you might get some other reviews here today.

FLATOW: Flora, what did you think of it?

FLORA LICHTMAN, BYLINE: It was a wild ride - for a book.


LICHTMAN: I mean, this is not a plot-driven book, right? Like this is just...

HEIST: There's no narrative.

LICHTMAN: There's no - it's just you're bumping around from - you know, one minute you're deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics, and the next minute you're having 7-Up in a topless bar. It's crazy. Like it's just like a - it's nutty. But, you know, it was entertaining.


LICHTMAN: And it really gave you - I think it gave you very unfiltered access to, you know, clearly a genius, but also kind of a kooky guy by his own - at least by his own account.

HEIST: Yeah. He's not hiding anything. And I was wondering if that's kind of - he wants to be a little bit shocking in some of these stories.

FLATOW: He surely wants to entertain you. You know, you could see that - what makes him, I think, different than a lot of scientists and why he's so good to read is that he doesn't come across as the stereotypical Hollywood scientist, right?



FLATOW: He's got a great sense of humor. He goes out socially. He does things that you don't think the guy with the white lab coat is going to be doing.

HEIST: Right. And he's also not pretentious at all. He doesn't care if you have a college degree. He'll talk to the guy sitting next to him in the diner or the - Jimmy the Greek, right? Does any...


HEIST: A couple of encounters with him. But - and this is where I have to say a little bit comes down to parts of this book - he really is sexist, and it comes across really clearly.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. That was disappointing to me too. Women are not treated particularly kindly in his account, and, you know, maybe it's just how he selected the stories. But you never get - there's no women characters.

HEIST: No, they're girls. He doesn't even call them women. They're just girls.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. They're all girls, and they're really - you know, they're just for sex in this book, not for their mind. So...

FLATOW: You don't think this might be a function of the time he was growing up with, pre-World War II America, women looked at in a different light at that time.

LICHTMAN: As people without brains? I don't know because I wasn't alive then. But I - either way, it was off-putting to me now in modern times.

HEIST: Yeah. It's a little bit, I felt, a little bit like, OK, we get it.

LICHTMAN: One thing - oh.

FLATOW: Let me just remind everybody that this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, here at our SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club, talking about "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"

HEIST: Right.

FLATOW: And that's a line he actually used himself.

HEIST: It was used on him when he was at Princeton because he explains in the book that he wasn't really clear on afternoon tea. And I think it was this anecdote where he - they said lemon or cream? And he said both, and the answer was, surely, you're joking, Mr. Feynman. And then he got to know the little laugh that went along with when you were doing something that was socially unacceptable. He heard that laugh a lot.

LICHTMAN: Probably in his life.


LICHTMAN: He - I mean, he - that was the amazing thing about this book, is the number of stories where he sort of thwarts authority or just does not pay attention to the rules and regulations, like when he's picking the safes in Los Alamos...

HEIST: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: ...and getting these sort of secret reports about nuclear weapons out of, you know, people's offices. And it's to prove a point, that it's not safe. But, you know, he...

FLATOW: Just leave a little note behind.

HEIST: Right.

LICHTMAN: Yeah, and scare people to death.

HEIST: I love those stories. And then he goes to the general and says, look, here's how I'm able to do this. When you have your drawer open, I can see the last two numbers of the combination. So all I need to do is fiddle for a little while, and then I can figure out the first one. It's not that hard, so you shouldn't leave the drawers open.

And the general says, oh, that's really interesting. Thank you very much. And then he sends out - he issues the warning not to let Feynman anywhere near your office, like that's the takeaway message. It's not that there's a security problem. It's that Richard Feynman is maybe the problem.

FLATOW: But the independence of his thinking is also what his genius was also.

HEIST: Yeah. He didn't let himself be taken in. Everything had to be proved to him, and he was very open-minded. I loved that about him.

FLATOW: Yes. If he didn't know something, he said some of the most - the most beautiful phrase in science is I don't know.


LICHTMAN: Right, right.

FLATOW: He was not afraid to tell you he didn't know something. But equally, he would go to the ends of the Earth like, you know - he'd grab it like a...

HEIST: Terrier.

FLATOW: Thank you. And he would want to know the answer.

HEIST: Yes, yes.

LICHTMAN: He was relentless in his quest to figure things out. Even when, you know, it seemed too hard to understand, he would go through the math for all of these equations until he got it straight in his head, which I - it was inspiring, I thought.

FLATOW: And I also thought it interesting that he was so - he was - he had great anonymity. Even though scientists - his peers considered him to be one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, I don't think anybody - the lay public heard much about him until the shuttle disaster where he had that famous...

HEIST: With the O-rings.

FLATOW: Yeah. He was in the committee hearing and in a typical Feynman way said let's get to the bottom of this and cut through all the bull. He took the material from the O-ring and stuck it in a glass of ice water and said, see, it gets hard and brittle. Next, please.


FLATOW: Give me a tough one.

HEIST: Yeah, right. He did have an amazing mind. I love that right at the beginning of the book, when he was learning calculus and he thought, oh, this looks - this symbol looks too much like this, I'm going to make my own. So he came up with his own symbols for calculus and was able to actually do it, but then thought, oh, I'm going to have to conform.

FLATOW: Here's a tweet coming from @Nerdista, who says: One of my favorite books of all time and one that helped inspire me to take science classes. I adore it.

You know, because he really - we like to use the word benji to take over instead of geek, for people who are not just into science but into...

LICHTMAN: He's the classic benji.


LICHTMAN: Because he is interested in everything.

HEIST: Everything.

LICHTMAN: That was what was, you know, so charming about the book. He gets interested in ants and follows them around like a biologist in his apartment, setting up little experiments, and then becomes an artist for a while.

HEIST: And he learns Japanese until he decides he doesn't like the structure of certain parts of the language, and he's finished with that. Portuguese...

FLATOW: Yeah. All right. We're going to come back and talk more about the book. 1-800-989-8255 is our number. You can also tweet us, @scifri, S-C-I-F-R-I. Or go to our website at If you read the book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" give us a call, 1-800-989-8255. Stay with us. We'll be right back after the break.


FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow. We're talking this hour about the classic book "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" With me is Flora Lichtman and Annette Heist. Our number is 1-800-989-8255. A play on words, Harry Allen tweets in. It says: I am joking and don't call me Shirley.


LICHTMAN: Name that classic.

FLATOW: Zoom. "Airplane." So I think he would've liked that...

LICHTMAN: Yeah, I think so.

FLATOW: ...that play on words. Let's go to the phones and see if we can get a call or two in. Corey(ph) from Sacramento. Hi, Corey.


FLATOW: Hey there.

COREY: How's it going?


COREY: Hi. I just had a small comment. Going back a little bit to the sexism that was in the book. I do agree with a lot of it. But I was going to say from what I remember, there was a point in the book when he was in Los Alamos where he would write to his wife, write back and forth. And it was a clever little thing - decoding things. And it seemed like he had a lot of respect for her. But after she died, he kind of - the women characters, what he called girls, did seem to kind of fall back and not be really respected, I guess. But he - it seemed to me that he did have it in the beginning.

HEIST: I'd agree with that. I think that's a fair point.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. That's a good point.

COREY: Yeah.

FLATOW: Thanks for calling, Corey. Oh, I dropped him too soon. Let's go to Chris in Columbia, South Carolina. Hi, Chris.

CHRIS: Hello. How are you doing? I wanted to make a comment about how that book, "Surely You're Joking," is put together along with a companion book, which I think was called "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" And I think you can see in those that he spoke some conversations and then an editor smooth things out. Feynman had said at one point, I don't speak readable English. But there's a very lovely book called "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations," which is a collection of Feynman's letters across his entire lifetime, practically. And it's edited by his daughter, Michelle Feynman. It was published about seven years ago.

And it's a really nice companion to "Surely You're Joking" and the other book because you can see that Feynman's words are not processed by an editor or anything like that. It's his letters, you know, published without emendations. And I think if one of your listeners enjoyed "Surely You're Joking," then I would recommend that they would also very, very much enjoy reading "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations."

LICHTMAN: Did it sound different? Does he - does his voice come across differently in that book?

CHRIS: Well, it's more like raw, you know, the grammar isn't ironed out the way it is in the edited books. And it's actually much more intimate. He talks about his marriage to his first wife. I think her name is Arline. And when he married her - before he married her, she had tuberculosis. And his family was rather alarmed by that. They didn't want their son to marry a woman who is likely to die of tuberculosis, which, in fact, she did. But there's a series of letters back and forth between them while he was at Los Alamos, and Arline was in a sanitorium for tuberculosis, also in New Mexico. And the tenderness and the intimacy of those letters is really a nice counterbalance to the science and to the sense of humor and so on that you see in "Surely You're Joking."

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. All right. Thanks for calling, Chris.

CHRIS: Bye-bye.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to Barrilyn(ph) in St. Louis. Hi, Barrilyn.

BARRILYN: Oh, hello there.

FLATOW: Hi there.

BARRILYN: Well, I knew Richard - very well, actually. And he was a very close friend of the love of my life, David McDermott, who was an artist. And Richard used to come to our house all the time and visit and talk about art and talk about, you know, everything that happened with the bomb and everything. It was very, very interesting. And I actually, you know, can relate to the, you know, sexist girl thing. But also, when David did die - my love died of leukemia, I couldn't have had a better friend and a more sympathetic ear and person to just sit with me while I cried. I mean he was such a complex person with such a love of everything, that I just wanted to share that with your listeners.

FLATOW: All right. Thank you for calling, Barrilyn.

LICHTMAN: Thank you.

FLATOW: Yeah, that's something that you don't get from the book, is that kind of feeling.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. A lot of the - I mean, the book is very entertaining. It's about these sort of stories where he does these amazing pranks most of the time.

HEIST: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: And you wonder what it's like in person because the way he relays them, people are sympathetic. And they seem to go along with it, which makes you think there is more to him than the pranks, which, you know, the caller just suggested. That adds up.

HEIST: He did talk about the letters to his wife, back and forth, when he was at Los Alamos. And there - I think there is just like a little line that he couldn't deal with talking about her death with his colleagues there. So they left to go. But he cried later. But it's not a very big part of this book.

FLATOW: I want to bring one of his biographers, Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist himself, author of "Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science." He's a founder of - founding - foundation professor and director of the origins project at ASU. Welcome back to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Lawrence.

LAWRENCE KRAUSS: It's always good to be back, Ira.

FLATOW: Tell us a little about this book. When it came out, it was a best seller in 1985. Why was that?

KRAUSS: Well, it's a good question. I think it was the first and - almost the first in the genre. What it did was humanize scientists. Feynman had a small cult, but what that did, was it demonstrated to people - the fact that he had Nobel Prize, of course, was an attraction. But what it was, what it demonstrated, I think, that there's a very human side to doing science and that scientists don't have to follow the mold. They can break it. And if anyone broke them all, that was Feynman.

Throughout his whole life, I think he tried to always ensure that he did things his own way. And I think that it's the combination - I mean, Feynman - also, if you'd ever heard Feynman give those anecdotes, they were well-honed. And by the time it came into the book, they were remarkably read. It - there is drama, there is pathos, there is humor. There's everything you want in a good story. But people kind of figured there was a person worth reading about.

Now, what you don't get, of course, from the book and one of the reasons I wrote a scientific biography later, is that there was a great man behind it. If it was just a curious character, it'd be amusing. But that curious character, those same aspects of his character that made him such a remarkable, charismatic, interesting man, also contributed to making him one of the greatest scientists of the second half of the 20th century.

FLATOW: You mentioned the Nobel Prize. We have a little clip I want to play, about what he thinks, or what he thought about actually winning the Nobel Prize.


DR. RICHARD FEYNMAN: I don't like honors. I'm appreciated for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it and I notice that other physicists use my work, I don't need anything else. I don't think there's any sense to anything else. I don't see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize. I've already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don't believe in honors.

FLATOW: That was, Lawrence, a typical quote from him?

KRAUSS: Yeah. I mean, it was - I think it was provocative, which is typical of Feynman. But I actually think it was honest. I mean, he enjoyed the notoriety that came from the Nobel Prize. I think that's clear. But for him, it really was the science. It really was the pleasure of finding things out. That's what drove him.

And he - and one of the reasons he was such a normal - in many ways - a regular guy, was he had a life. In his early childhood, he wasn't exposed to sort of academia. And these honors, in fact, were very foreign to him. One of the things that I was always impressed about, not just with Nobel Prize, is that when he was an undergraduate, you know, he got his degree and he worked very hard, and he went to the graduation, and they were giving out these honorary degrees to people. And he said to himself, these people didn't do anything to deserve that. I'm never going to take an honorary degree.

And he was true to that. He turned down every offer of honorary degrees. And, in fact, he eventually would also resign from the National Academy of Sciences because he felt it was too honorific. For Feynman, it was the adventure of science and the adventure of living, and I think that those two things combined to make him a remarkable human being. And what you get from the "Surely You're Joking" book is the adventure of living. But it was complimented by almost an identical passion for adventure and exploration and the experience in science.

LICHTMAN: Lawrence, can you give us a taste of what he's famous for in physics?

KRAUSS: Sure, a taste, absolutely. What he - the reason the book is called "Quantum Man" is because what he really did was give us a new way of thinking about the quantum universe - not just a new way of calculating, which is the basis of all modern particle physics calculations - but a new way of thinking about the weird fact that elementary particles at a subatomic level are doing many different things at the same time.

And he developed a formalism that really gave us a new physical way of picturing what was happening, because he was very physical, and allowed us, in fact, formed the basis of the way we now do - we couldn't have done what is now the standard model of particle physics without this formulation. I'm thinking about the fact that, when an electron goes from me to you, it's very different than a baseball. If a baseball, thrown from home plate to a pitcher, it takes one trajectory - we all know.

But an electron if it would - did that, would take every different trajectory at the same time. It will go to the moon and back. It would go around the field and back. And to do the quantum mechanics, you have to consider all possible trajectories. As weird that is, that formulation of understanding the particles are doing many things at the same time, gives a direct way of intuitively picturing quantum mechanics and allowing a set of calculations.

And, in fact, you know, I ended my book with an anecdote, which I think captures the fact of his science and his life being the same. You know, he used to walk to work with a friend of his every day, who lived - or very often, who lived about three miles from Cal Tech. And one day, Feynman asked him: Have you seen this house on this street? And this guy said, no, I always take the same way to work. And Feynman said, I try never to take the same route to work.

And I think that captured his life. He tried to experience everything in life. And, of course, that's exactly the way he described nature at a fundamental scale.

FLATOW: Lawrence, I want to thank you for taking the time to be with us today. Good luck to you.

KRAUSS: It is great. It's always great to be back.

FLATOW: Lawrence Krauss, a theoretical physicist and author of - if you want to read another biography, "Quantum Man: Richard Feynman's Life in Science." We're talking on - by our Book Club, today about one of Feynman's most famous books, which is?

HEIST: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!" I should say that this book is - was told to Ralph Leighton, who recorded these stories, and then it was edited by Edward Hutchings. But I think they read pretty much as though he was - as though Feynman were standing up and talking. I can imagine in my ear with his yack, yack, yack and - it's funny. He fills in a lot of blanks with the - with these sort of made-up little mumbly phrases.

LICHTMAN: Da da di da, ti ti ti.

HEIST: Yeah.

FLATOW: Let's go to the phones, get a call from Jose in Utica in New York. Hi, Jose.

JOSE: Hey, good afternoon. I read Mr. Feynman's book 20 years ago and not only did I certainly enjoy it, but I found him to be a fascinating individual. He also sparked the inner physicist in me, and I realize that I probably should have been a physicist at some point, at least my friends tell me. Whenever we're sitting around discussing politics, or economics or biology, I usually end everything with saying that it's all physics. And they all eventually seem to agree.


FLATOW: Can't go wrong there. Thanks for calling. Let's go to Johanna(ph) in Toledo. Hi, Johanna.

JOHANNA: Hi. Thanks for taking my call.

KRAUSS: Mm-hmm.

JOHANNA: I just wanted to say that my favorite part of the book was probably hearing about why he played the bongos. I know a lot of times in popular culture, he's related back to playing bongos. And I thought it was interesting to find out why he started doing that.

LICHTMAN: Tell us the story.

JOHANNA: He said he had found some bongos. I read it a couple of weeks ago, so it's not clear in my brain anymore. He had found some bongos...



JOHANNA: ...and he just started - some drums, and he started beating on them, just - he wasn't a musician. He just started beating on them and - out there, he did took some lessons and kept doing it.

FLATOW: Wow, it's an interesting anecdote. Thanks for joining us, Johanna. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm Ira Flatow, here, talking with Annette Heist and Flora Lichtman about our SCIENCE FRIDAY Book Club, and it's "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"

HEIST: One little thing that I really liked about the book is seeing all of these famous physicists and where they fit in with Feynman. I mean, it's like a who's who, Einstein, Oppenheimer, John Wheeler, Enrique - Enrico Fermi, are all making appearances. And I guess I had never thought about them being contemporaries, but...

FLATOW: And they all coalesced around the Manhattan Project.

HEIST: Right.

FLATOW: You know, building the bomb and they lived at the same time. And I'm thinking back, and I think Feynman is probably the last one.

HEIST: He was the one of the youngest.


HEIST: I remember this part in the book where he's afraid because Niels Bohr is coming. I think he had a fake - a pseudonym, right, Nicholas Baker, and Feynman's nervous, but he's going to meet him. And then Niels Bohr says, who's the little man in the back? I want to talk to him because he's the only one that's not going to be afraid to tell me if I'm wrong.

FLATOW: Right.

HEIST: And Feynman said that's how he was about physics. He didn't care who he was talking to. If he had an idea, he wanted to get it across.

LICHTMAN: Yeah. I actually have it open right here. Here's Feynman. He says, you see, when I hear about physics, I just think about physics, and I don't know who I'm talking to. So I say dopey things like, no, no, no, you're wrong, or you're crazy. But it turned out that's exactly what he needed.

FLATOW: And he's not afraid to say those things.

HEIST: Yeah.

FLATOW: And he's not afraid to be wrong, and he's not afraid to say, I don't know.

HEIST: And he says it at the end, that's the way you're supposed to be when you're a scientist. You want to pick out the person that's going to tell you you're wrong.


HEIST: You want someone that's going to show you what could be wrong about your theory.

FLATOW: And he's not afraid to say, let's move on. This is not a good question to ask. It's not a scientific question. Let's ask a different question.

HEIST: Yeah.

LICHTMAN: He's also not afraid to ask questions that just interest him, like he's spinning a plate. I think this happened at Cornell.

HEIST: Yes, with the medallion.

LICHTMAN: And he's like, oh, maybe I can model the movement of the dot on the underside of the plate. And that, sort of, you know, is the kind of thing that happens within this book all the time. He just gets interested in something and follows it.

HEIST: And follows it. Yeah.

FLATOW: Yeah. And I think he said that it's the plate, the idea - something clicked in his mind that led to the work that he won the Nobel Prize for.

HEIST: For the wobbling electrons, I think.

FLATOW: Yeah, yeah.

HEIST: Yes. I was surprised to find out that he was an artist. That comes in one of the later chapters. And I went and looked at some of the art that he did, and it's really nice. It's beautiful, and he didn't use his name. So he was already becoming famous. I think he'd won the Nobel Prize when he - I might be wrong about that. But he used the name O-F-E-Y. I don't know how it's pronounced, but it's really nice.

FLATOW: You know, if you want to see, actually watch Feynman speaking, there a lot of - there's a lot of video on the Internet. There's a lot - the BBC, that we got that clip from - there's a lot of video that they interviewed him early on, you know, for decades.

HEIST: That was in '81, about - it was from a series called "Horizon."

FLATOW: "Horizon," a very famous BBC series.

HEIST: We have a clip on our website. We also have a book chat going on right now, at You can go there and tell us what you thought about the book, maybe even email us if you want, and tell us what we should read next.

FLATOW: So our next Book Club, we're taking votes.

HEIST: November, we're taking votes - under 300 pages.


LICHTMAN: Do everyone a favor.


FLATOW: All right. Well, thank you very much.


FLATOW: Annette Heist and Flora Lichtman, thanks for...

HEIST: Thank you.

FLATOW: ...part of our Book Club today.

That's about all the time we have for today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.