Do you like Richard Feynman?

Twice in the last few weeks I’ve had heated discussions with friends about Richard Feynman — more precisely, about the character of Feynman as he presents himself in his popular memoirs Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?

I read these books as a kid and found the experience profoundly off-putting — like being trapped in a room for hours with a guy who keeps saying, “You know, that reminds me of yet another occasion on which small-minded types were first startled, then chastened, by my unconventional yet plainly superior approach!” The second book, in particular, might better have been titled What Do You Care What Other People Think? Other People Are Stupid! It was very popular with the toxic nerds who liked to refer to science fiction non-fans as “mundanes.”

And yet: I have recently found that lots of gentle and thoughtful grownups find the protagonist of these books charming, and even admirable. So again, I ask: am I the weird one here? Am I selectively remembering these books as meaner than they were? Are normal people fond of Feynman?

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30 thoughts on “Do you like Richard Feynman?

  1. Daniel says:

    I’ve only read _Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!_, which I thought was pretty clever and entertaining.

    Speaking of Feynman, if you ever have several hours to learn some physics in, there are a series of four lectures by him here:
    http://www.vega.org.uk/video/subseries/8
    I’ve only watched the first two, but somehow in three hours, he managed to explain all of quantum mechanics in an easily understandable manner. The next two lectures are about QED, and although I would assume they are as good, I haven’t gotten around to watching them, so I can’t vouch for them.

  2. Charles says:

    I’ve only read “Surely You’re Joking,” and though I will always be impressed by Feynmann’s intellectual achievements, I thought he came off as a bit of a jerk. Though part of that is his embrace of “You’re not responsible for the world around you,” which is a rather baldfaced bit of social irresponsibility which I find repugnant.

  3. Like you, I read these books as a kid and haven’t touched them sense. I really liked the first one, including the persona/character of Feynman himself (though he did come across as a bit of a sexist, IIRC); the second book was repetitive and dragged a bit. I don’t know what would I think if I read the books today, despite having spent four years at Caltech, where Feynman-worship is the state religion (there was more shelf-space devoted to him at the bookstore than to works of fiction).

  4. I read “Surely you’re joking” (in a French translation which was probably quite bad), after it was recommended by a friend of mine (who is a mathematical-physicist) who had really liked it, and my reaction was also somewhat negative. This even led me to include a cameo appearance by Feynman (unnamed) in one of the Schlomo Cohen stories – where his sinful pride is properly put down…
    I have no idea what I would think of it now, and actually that should probably be a reason to try to re-read it in English.

  5. Norbert Wiener says:

    You’re not alone. When I read those books I was really put off as well. He seemed to exult in trying to sleep with grad students’ wives and other things that just seemed unprofessional. Also the constant self-glorification that seemed to never end. It was so clear to me that his intended audience were people who were supposed to be in awe of him. He was so full of himself. I figure the reason they idolize him at Caltech is that so many of the students there, male ones at least, which they could be a physics God as well as be a “ladies man” etc. I bet if they were more successful in that department they wouldn’t admire him so much.

  6. Peter Woit says:

    I read the books when they came out, at which point I’d been around the particle theory community for awhile, so was interested to know more about such an influential figure. My general reaction was that it was like listening to a rather smart and entertaining character telling stories of his adventures, while after a while the stories are all too revelatory of the teller’s insecurities. If you have to keep telling stories about how you showed up someone else, it becomes clear that the question of whether you’re smarter than other people is of central importance to you.

    So, while I was amused and interested by many of the stories, I think I also ended up learning something about Feynman that he didn’t intend to have publicized, and that I wonder whether he knew about himself. This didn’t change at all my perception that he was a great scientist, but it made clear that even the greatest geniuses of a field often are laboring with a chip on their shoulder.

    In the end, I think Feynman was in many ways an admirable character, mainly for his scientific work, which was bold and carried out at the highest level, but also for some of his aggressive pursuit of various not-so-conventional interests. He could also be charming and entertaining, but the competitive and insecure part of this nature was definitely there, and not so admirable or charming. But people are always a mixed bag, even the greatest…

  7. John Cowan says:

    My wife (definitely non-geek) loved both books, as well as the Nova program “Last Journey of a Genius”, about Feynman’s attempt to make it to Tanno Tuva.

    But then, she fell for me, so she’s not exactly “normal”, eh?

  8. If I remember right, I read “Surely you’re joking” about the same time that André Weil’s autobiography came out, and I couldn’t help compare them, thinking that, if I had to choose, I would much rather be Weil (the sophisticated European who learns Sanskrit and spends a few years in India, and then, despite his certainly non-negligeable ego, accepts that a sizable part of his contribution to mathematics will be hidden in a mysterious pseudonymous project to write the definitive treatise of mathematics…) than Feynman. (And of course, Weil did appear in another Schlomo Cohen adventure, in a much more positive light!)

  9. I read Feynman a long time ago and found it amusing. He is likable and unlikable at the same time, a bit like House, if you allow the comparison. Now, Weil’s autobiography I did not like. I think he’d make a great subject for a biography but would have to be written by somebody other than himself.

  10. Norbert Wiener says:

    Another thing about that title “What do you care what other people think?” The reason he’s writing the thing is because he does want to tell everyone his stories… he cares very much what they think. He reminds me of those guys on cable news who pretend to be mavericks, just looking in from the outside, when in fact they are the personification of popular opinion.

  11. Nick says:

    I read “Surely You’re Joking” my senior year of high school in one cross-country plane flight – from the lines in the airport all the way to the cab ride back. It was enthralling- I found him to be a hilarious storyteller and, at least the way he presented himself in the book, an intellectual giant worthy of admiration, even if aloof. I’ve since read “The Character of Physical Law” and listened to his lectures on electricity and magnetism, and his razor-sharp expository skills are just as present there as in his non-technical works. There is absolutely no denying that Feynman is a genius of the first order, and it’s acutely present in his writing, for better or for worse. Yes, it can come off as suffocating and arrogant, but it can also inspire the budding physicist and (at least in the popular physics writing,) serve as an example of good teaching. It takes you inside a unique mind. He was an “incredibly curious character” as the subtitle for “Joking” states, and that really comes across in the book. I found the chapter on his experiences with lucid dreaming to be fascinating and inspiring. He was intrigued by dreams, unleashed his curiosity, and ended up learning something about himself and about the human brain. He didn’t stop at exploring the boundaries of physics; he had a scientific outlook on every aspect of his life, and wanted to push his mind to its limits. That’s an incredibly potent message to send along to his readers.

  12. Austin says:

    I’m going to weigh in for the Feynmanistas here. I haven’t read these since high school, and I freely admit that at the time Feynman’s personality problems were totally imperceptible to me – perhaps that says something.

    But it was (for me) a founding text for a kind of nerd intellectual ethos that got expounded in the stories – don’t be afraid to ask apparently stupid questions; reason up from first principles; don’t be afraid to look ridiculous; question accepted solutions; look for basic truths in every day phenomena; explore the world with your intellect; thinking = play. Nerds are awesome. &c. Stuff that was genuinely useful in having a satisfying intellectual life.

    Later I read an actual biography of Feynman, which shaded in a lot of what was implicit in his self-presentation. And that was educational in its own way. But I consider my experience with the autobio stuff to be a strong net positive.

  13. Dirty Davey says:

    I started “Surely You’re Joking…” twice, I think, but at about the halfway point I got bored and set it aside. This was back when I was a junior or senior in HS; the second book had not yet been published.

    I wasn’t “put off” so much as not captivated enough to keep going.

  14. Scott Carnahan says:

    I read the books when I was rather young, and like some of the previous commenters, I found them quite fascinating and inspiring. He presented a view of science that made it seem very accessible and hands-on. I also liked his stories from places like Los Alamos, mostly because it put a human face on the usual narratives such as, “some scientists get together in New Mexico and build a bomb. Oppenheimer quotes the Gita.”

    My father (a chemist) didn’t share my view. He called it, “just another physicist patting himself on the back.” I was appalled at the time (perhaps I was one of those toxic nerds), but I think now I see some of the psychology where before I just saw a guy telling funny stories. Certainly, he had some character weaknesses (I thought he came off really poorly in the sexist pig episode), and my junior high self was a little uncomfortable reading about his sexual conquests. However, I think we can learn from both his weaknesses and his strengths. If one overlooks the fact that Feynman seems to win all the time, I think a student can derive good lessons about how scientists work and interact.

    I haven’t read Weil’s autobiography, but my impression from his other writing is that he was more of a “stab you in the back and frame someone else” person while Feynman was a “stab you in the face and tell everyone he did it” sort.

  15. I wonder what other writings of Weil give an impression of him as a back-stabbing person. I always had the feeling he was very tough and outspoken, but certainly not shy to state directly what he thought to be true. See, e.g., his rather strongly-worded review of the book “Introduction to the theory of algebraic functions of one variable”, whose author is one of his oldest friends and fellow-Bourbakist, C. Chevalley. Here is a typical excerpt:

    “As to the style, it is that of the modern algebraic or formalistic school; the resources of the English vocabulary and syntax could not be cut down any further. Definitions are either not motivated, or else the patronizing tone in which this is done indicates that it is mere condescension to human weaknesses of which the author does not approve.”

  16. Pete L. Clark says:

    The book “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman” made a big impression on me as a high school student. In a way, the stories in the book remind of some of Roald Dahl’s stories: ostensibly the goal is just to be entertaining, but I find afterwards that parts of them linger in my mind, growing in significance.

    Should I be embarrassed to say that my high school graduation speech centered around Feynman and his approach to knowledge? I’m guess I’m not. I really do profoundly agree with his main point, that just because someone tells you that something is true or right doesn’t make it so: you should cultivate an ability to work things out for yourself. It may be that some aspects of my own personality are similar to his: like I suppose most people do, I tend to think of myself as sort of moderate and reasonable, but more than once friends and colleagues have told me that they thought of me as very opinionated. A few months ago a visiting friend mentioned to me his recent conversation with a certain eminent senior number theorist, who is well known for being about as brash and loud as mathematicians get. My friend said that the topic briefly turned to me, and Mr. Loud and Brash mentioned, apropos of I don’t know what, that he and I knew each other and got along well but gosh, I had some pretty strong opinions. I thought this was a real case of the pot calling the paper bag black and was amused by it. Then my friend told me about Mr. Eminent and Senior’s latest thoughts about a very famous mathematical problem. I didn’t notice until two sentences later that the first word out of my mouth was “bullsh*t”.

    I should say that at about the same time I also read, and very much enjoyed, Gleick’s biography of Feynman, which functions in many ways as a complement and even an antidote to Feynman’s more extreme stories.

  17. I haven’t reread SYJ properly since my early days of secondary (aka high) school, when I was rather under its spell, and it wasn’t until much later that I reassessed the man and the stories in view of other books and accounts. On balance though, I’d have to say that the book played a significant part in getting me interested in both science and mathematics, and part of that must have been the not-entirely-honest persona of a clever maverick.

    I may be wrong here, but if I recall correctly, aren’t the stories/anecdotes in SYJ more-or-less transcribed from taped conversations he was having with a friend? This might account for some of the in-your-face tone, and also the presumption that the audience is similarly disposed and entertained.

  18. rmb says:

    I read the Feynman books in high school, before I learned calculus. At the time I was somewhat put off by his attitudes towards mathematicians and women, although as ye (stereo)typical teenage nerd, I found his rather obnoxious form of intelligence admirable. Now that I’m about to start grad school in math, I understand why his mathematician interlocutors found him so annoying. I also keep wondering why he was so proud of being able to differentiate under the integral sign. I did think his comments on why he turned down a position at IAS were interesting, though.

  19. Jordan, if you don’t want this discussion sidetracked to talking about Weil, please feel free to delete this comment or say something.

    Emmanuel, this review of Chevalley’s book is a prime example of Weil’s hypocrisy. Bourbaki is guilty of all the crimes ascribed to Chevalley and more. Another example are the comments (especially the last few paragraphs, vol 3 pg 454) in Weil’s collected papers to his paper where he states the “modularity conjecture” or whatever you want to call it. [1967b]. I could go on.

  20. Emmanuel,
    I might have gotten a bit too excited about making stabbing analogies, but I think Weil behaved poorly with respect to recognizing the work of others, especially in making interesting conjectures (e.g., Mordell and Taniyama-Shimura). Lang pointed out several apparent problems with missing citations in a (rather strange) Notices article. Some of them weren’t so serious (e.g., no bibliography in Foundations, but I found plenty of footnotes), but Castelnuovo certainly seemed to get buried.

    On the other hand, I heard from a physicist that Feynman and Schwinger had a sufficiently acrimonious rivalry that they spent some time not citing each other’s work. Perhaps Feynman and Weil are not so different after all.

  21. […] which Richard Feynman annoys me less than previously 17Jul08 My dislike of Feynman’s memoirs prompted the longest and best series of comments this blog has ever seen — many of which were spirited endorsements of Feynman’s books. […]

  22. Terence Tao says:

    I think with science exposition is usually at its best when the author talks about science in general, and becomes awkward when the subject turns to the author or the author’s own work. Looking back on “Surely You’re Joking”, which I think I first read at age ten or so, this seems very much to be the case: the chapters focusing on the wonder and the problem-solving challenge of science (my favourite, I think, being the chapter about the ants) were excellent and special, but the more personal stories revolving around Feynman himself were just okay (and I think I managed to miss most of the psychological subtext discussed above while reading at that age), though I did find the chapter about his first wife to be very moving, and quite different from the rest of the book.

    While there is certainly a fair amount of self-centredness in the book (it is, after all, an autobiography), some of what may be perceived as bragging may simply be unmodulated honesty. I remember as a child being puzzled as to why Feynman was so conflicted, for instance, about being offered an extremely nice position at the IAS, and wondered why he dwelled on it; having since been in almost exactly the same position, I now understand and sympathise with his feelings, even as I also see that it is also not something that is easy to share without coming across as spoiled, especially when told in the first person.

  23. observer says:

    Richard Feynman was a real character in his time the type that being so smart that really did not care about everybody else, yet he managed to be not arrogant (well not too much) and very funny, I see some people these days try and try again to be funny and only are very bad copies of his ( Lenny Susskind being a good example) you should read his interaction with leonard Mlodinov when the latest was a Fairchild scholar in Caltech to see a real person in a bunch of nerds and still at an old age being funny. Regarding the comparison with Weil it is not a comparison you should compare Weil with Oppenheimer both came more from the same social settings. Feynman came from a popular setting.

    Regards.

  24. Mary Katherine says:

    I’ve read the books and I have mixed feelings. Having studied physics in the 80’s, I knew people who had met Feynman, often several times, and they said he was much less obnoxious in person than in the books.

    The thing about those books is that they were “written by committee.” Feynman told stories about himself to a close family friend, who transcribed them, he may have done some selection/chosen to leave certain stories out, and other editing, and then they were sent to a book publisher without much editing after that, and then published.

    The result was that no one person really took responsibility for what was appearing on the printed page and how it held together.

    It’s not that anyone involved was a bad person. But I have a library science degree and I learned there is a LOT more to a book than just putting a draft of something together – no matter how well-done – and then releasing it.

    One thing is that irony tends to fall flat on the page unless it is made ridiculous, like put in a different color text or something. And so a lot of time, Feynman’s statements about being most brilliant were meant as self-parody or ironical, at least in part. But that does not come across.

    Feynman, when he said those things, he may have been crossing his eyes or waving his head in a way that suggested “LOOK at me I am SOOO smart.” but on the page that doesn’t show.

    I don’t know any of the people involved so I am speculating. What I do know is that my very caring, smart, down-to-earth physics professor, who seemed to have a genuine social conscience, respected Feynman and talked about what it was like listening to him speak. That Feynman spoke fast and conveyed irony (where the literal meaning is different from the intended meaning) often. I am speculating that something like that happened with the books.

    I’m also writing as a librarian who has very STRONG opinions about books, 99.99999999% of which have nothing to do with Richard P. Feynman, or physics, whatsoever. The fact is that it is easy to write a bad book. And those books about Feynman are not bad; they are very good, I think, but – like I would say about the vast majority of books published in America in the last 50 or so years, they needed a far more careful editorial review.

    I can’t comment directly on Feynman’s character :) – that is beyond me. I can say his daughter Michelle edited a book of his letters that was published a few years ago, the perfectly reasonable deviations from the beaten track book. And in that book he comes across as much more similar to how I remember him being described by physics teachers I had.

    my personal belief is that when authoring a book, it is wise to leave at least as much time for the editing as for the speaking/writing. and that it is important to, as Feynman said himself, know your audience and figure out what you are saying and why. too many of the surely you’re joking? stories have a similarity to them that makes me wonder why they all needed to be included.

    sorry for the lecture. the importance of editing is something I feel strongly about. I have to say that I think Feynman’s daughter has done a much better job than in some of the other books.

  25. Mary Katherine says:

    I just thought of something else: hearing feynman speak is really different from reading words on the page. I’m thinking of getting back into physics and at this moment, listening to his ‘lost’ lecture, the motion of planets across the sun. He had a very thick “blue collar” New York Jewish accent. He actually sounded like a rough-style detective.

    Hearing him speak is different from reading his words b/c hearing him, to an American, reinforces the experience that he was not WASP, not “upper crust.” So him getting the better of an opponent had a real underdog feel, listening to him speak. That also does not come across on the page.

    The 2 Feynman books were reissued in a book called “Classic Feynman” which comes with a CD. That solves the problem of not hearing him speak.

    Reading the words on the page, he does seem insufferable, but hearing him speak, it is reminding me of a Columbo episode. There he is in the wrinkled raincoat, beating out the often upper-class perpetrator :)

    Feynman’s words were recorded and transcribed carefully but – sometimes hearing is different from reading. I really think the ‘fault’ if there is one, is with the publishing house, who issued the books without much thought, I think. The first book was a surprise bestseller. It was a labor of love that was not expected to sell much beyond friends, family, the physics community, and other interested people. That’s what the revised edition seems to indicate.

    I’d suggest buying the ‘classic feynman’ book with CD and listening to him, or buying the feynman’s lost lecture book/CD combination. b/c listening to him now it is a different feeling.

    He stood up for the underdog all his life, from marrying a woman with TB over family objections, to working on the Challenger disaster at the end of his life. He certainly had flaws, but I don’t believe he was the snob that he comes across as.

    He was actually a great orator, and that really doesn’t come across.

    I find the history of individual books to be an interesting mystery in itself. :)

  26. Mary Katherine says:

    one last thing (sorry)

    It appears that Nobel Prize winner Freeman Dyson, who wrote a foreword to the Classic Feynman book, is trying to state a different view of things.

    He says the following:

    Classic Feynman, the foreword goes from pages 5 to 9. I’ve quoted bits of it. I hope that is OK.

    Dyson said:

    “The main thing I would like to write about in the foreword is Feynman’s propensity for hard work. From the stories that Feynman told and the stories that other people told about him, one has the impression that he spent most of his time playing the fool and having amusing adventures, only occasionally interrupting his carefree existence with periods of intense concentration on science during which he made his brilliant discoveries.

    This impression is not only entirely wrong, but it misses the most important part of his character. The central theme in his life was long, slow, hard work, slogging away at a scientific problem until it was solved. The adventures and the jokes were real enough, but they were not the main theme.

    …There was a paradoxical mismatch between the style and the substance of Feynman’s contributions to science. The style of his science was brilliant and impressionistic…but the substance of his science was conservative…..Nothing that he built was done hastily and all has stood the test of time….as he often said….it is more important to be right than to be brilliant….

    Feynman was always a calculator first and a philosopher second. For him the most important thing was to get the details right.”

    Then he said that he emphasized the scientific side of Feynman b/c the stories show the human side. And that he felt the most important story was of Feynman’s life with and after the death of his first wife, Arline.

    I thought that was interesting.

    Take care.

  27. just musing says:

    In what I have read by him Feynman does explain well a true unadulterated passion for physics, especially the discovery process to which he attributes the fundamental reason why physicists and maybe other scientists do what they do. That is fine, but in my opinion there are a lot of more noble reasons why someone might contribute and serve the world. It almost seems to be that the scattered documented deficiencies of Feynman’s intellect in areas like English and history are the reason for his character shortcomings in social areas and the fact that he prizes self-excusing them. This may be a harsh criticism to a typical person, but when one reaches the upper echelons of a respected discipline and has great appointments throughout ones career to serve his country in the spotlight, I believe it becomes essential to have the courage to always seek to improve oneself, and so much of the nonsense, rather adolescent personal subject matter he has written and said and the fact that people of great stature have labeled Feynman a buffoon suggests to me that Feynman never rose much past that level as a person. He is the great dramatic romantic but seems too one-sided and having every interest in keeping his self-preoccupation and proclamation that way. While one can wield a Herculean effort and accomplish great things that way, it is a cancer and leaves one vulnerable.

  28. just musing says:

    In light of the reply above mine, I believe I may have to start to change my view on Feynman. It just seems that his personal life, as publicized as it is, is detrimental to his image. But if it was truly the best way for him to have his life work out, then it is his choice.

  29. Diznick Feinmann says:

    Unfortunately, I don’t have the time to respond to everyone who seems to have had an issue with Feynman’s books. My problem with the negative responses I’ve seen so far on this blog and another is their falsity.

    For example, the writer and some commenters have claimed that Feynman has put himself up as a more intelligent person than others mentioned in his books. Unless the people who’ve made the negative comments here learnt English as a 4th language, I didn’t get that impression. He mentions *so many* scenarios where he does dumb stuff, including one science experiment where he cost the team the chance of being the first to make a discovery.

    If anybody read *Surely You’re Joking*, there’s even a part when he was looking at a blueprint — during his Los Alamos days — where he did not know what the hell he was looking at and asked: “What is that?” or something to that effect. They realised that they had made a mistake and they congratulated him for pointing it out. They thought he was brilliant! If he was the guy everyone seems to be painting him as, he simply would have narrated the story as if he had schooled those guys since he’s the only one who knew he was clueless.

    There are so many counter-examples of negative things said here but I might have to start a series of blogs just to deal with these false claims when the very readable books are available at your local library. An even more revealing book is the one published by his daughter which includes many of his letters.

    Lemme leave y’all with a few things:

    – While he was a good writer (see *Perfectly Reasonable Deviations*), he was not an author: All his books, to my knowledge, were edited transcriptions of lectures or interviews so it’s not fair to compare him with other writers. The videos (or audio, in the case of the textbook) are online so I’m not just talking out of my ass.

    – He wasn’t sexist. There are many examples where he positively intervened on behalf of women. One example would be that he’s the reason that his sister, an astrophysicist, went into science in spite of her mother telling her that women can’t understand things like science. (He was a man of his times, though, so he couldn’t get away with some of his actions today).

    – He was arrogant but not like he’s been portrayed here — taking credit for scientific exposition etc. He always gave credit to others including some people that physicists themselves avoid mentioning for political reasons e.g. Max Born (see the video that a commenter mentioned on vega.org.uk).

    – Many of the things that people read “by” Feynman are not scientific exposition; they were interviews about him, sometimes by people who knew him, hence they were biographical so he would come out sounding self-centred.

    – His approach to things wasn’t that other people were dumb. It was that, not-thinking differently is certainly not the way to reveal new ways of doing old things and is certainly not the way to solving existing problems.

  30. Ray White says:

    I didn’t read to the end of these comments but the ones complaining about his eogtism need to realize he DID NOT WRITE THESE BOOKS. Others heard him talk and wrote them down. His name is the big name on the cover but he’s not the writer. People project onto Feynman what they want to see. He did seduce his assistants’ wives and presumably others, which is not merely a professional lapse but a moral lapse, did some of his work on cocktail napkins at strip bars, drove a van with Feynman diagrams painted on the side, was arrogant, and so on. So he was egotistical and a sexist. Ever see Mad Men? And remember the love of his life died when he was a young man. And it was the 1950s, so I figure we can cut him some slack, but even so, he used his reputation as a tool of seduction and intimidation. What I find worthwhile about Feynman is his curiosity and the smarts he used in exploring his world as a child, especially his little experiments with ants. And locksmithing. That is inspiring to me, this attitude of curiosity, of being willing to be objective and consider a problem from multiple angles.

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