Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Richard P. Feynman

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Fun, lighthearted autobiography about one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. The book is laid out in short stories that Feynman tells about his life, both within the scientific realm and in his personal life. Each story seems to start off as any other old story, but by the end you’ve learned something about the scientific process or how the world works.


I went over to the radio and turned it on. Little noise? My God! No wonder the poor guy couldn’t stand it. The thing began to roar and wobble: wa-bu-bu-bah. Tremendous amount of noise. Then it quieted down and played correctly. So I started to think, how can that happen? I started walking back and forth, thinking, and I realize that one way it can happen is that the tubes are heating up in the wrong order. That is, the amplifier is all hot, the tubes are ready to go and there’s nothing feeding in. Or there’s some back circuit feeding in. Or something wrong in the beginning part, the RF part, and therefore it’s making a lot of noise, picking up something…And so the guy says, “What are you doing? You came to fix the radio but you’re only walking back and forth!” I say, “I’m thinking!”…So I changed the tubes around, stepped to the front of the radio, turned the thing on, and it’s as quiet as a lamb…When a person has been negative to you and then you do something like that, they’re usually 100% the other way, kind of to compensate. He got me other jobs, and kept telling everybody what a tremendous genius I was saying, “He fixes radios by thinking!”

So I found hypnosis to be a very interesting experience. All the time you’re saying to yourself, “I could do that, but I won’t.” Which is just another way of saying that you can’t.

It would’ve been a fantastic and vital discovery if I had been a good biologist. But I wasn’t a good biologist. We had a good idea, a good experiment, the right equipment, but I screwed it up. I gave her infected ribosomes. The grossest possible error you could ever make in an experiment like that. My ribosomes had been in the refrigerator for almost a month and had become contaminated with some other living things. Had I prepared those ribosomes promptly over again and given them to her in a serious and careful way with everything under control, that experiment would’ve worked. And we would’ve been the first to demonstrate the uniformity of life, the machinery of making proteins – the ribosome is the same in every creature. We were there at the right place. We were doing the right things. But I was doing things as an amateur: stupid and sloppy.

[After a painter had told him he mixed red and white to get yellow] The painter had told me so much stuff that was reasonable that I was ready to give a certain chance that there was an odd phenomenon that I didn’t know. I was expecting pink, but my set of thoughts were, “the only way to get yellow will be something new and interesting and I’ve got to see this”. I’ve very often made mistakes in my physics by thinking a theory isn’t as good as it really is. Thinking that there are lots of complications that are going to spoil it, an attitude that anything can happen, in spite of what you’re pretty sure should happen.

Then the son told me what happened. The last time I was there, [Niels] Bohr said to his son, “remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. So next time, when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with all these guys who say everything is ‘yes, yes Dr. Bohr.’ Get that guy, I want to talk to him first.”

“Oh yeah, I knew that the locks come from the factory set at 25-0-25 or 50-25-50. So I thought, who knows? Maybe the guy didn’t bother to change the combination, and the second one worked.” So I did learn something from him: that he cracks safes by the same miraculous methods I did. But even funnier was that this big shot captain had to have a ‘super, super safe’ and had people go to all that trouble to hoist the thing up into his office, and he didn’t even bother to set the combination. I went from office to office in my building, trying those two factory combinations, and I opened about one safe in five.

What this Greek scholar discovers is that students learn Greek by first learning to pronounce the letters, then the words, then sentences and paragraphs. They can recite word for word was Socrates said, without realizing that those Greek words actually mean something. To the student, they are all artificial sounds. Nobody has ever translated them into words that the students can understand. I said, “that’s how it looks to me when I see you teaching the kids science here in Brazil.”

So the drawing teacher has this problem of communicating how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teaching has the problem of always teaching techniques rather than the spirit of how to go about solving physical problems.

I understood, at last, what art is really for (at least in certain respects). It gives somebody, individually, pleasure. You can make something that somebody likes so much that they’re depressed or they’re happy on account of that damn thing that you made. In science, it’s sort of general and large. You don’t know the individuals who have appreciated it directly.

…and the question was, what is the length of the emperor of China’s nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of emperor of China’s nose is. And you average it and that would be very accurate because you average so many people. But it’s no way to find anything out. When you have a very wide-range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don’t improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.

[When talking to a princess from Denmark about physics] “Oh, well nobody knows anything about that, I guess we can’t talk about it.” “On the contrary,” I answered. “It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather, we can talk about social problems, we can talk about psychology, we can talk about international finance. Gold transfers we can’t talk about because those are understood. So it’s the subject that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about.’

It’s not dishonest, but the thing I’m talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest, it’s a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will, including Wesson oil. So it’s the implication which has been conveyed, not the fact, which is true. And the difference is what we have to deal with.

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