Living Life to the Fullest

Catriona Miller*

Feynman, Richard P. and Ralph Leighton. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. New York: Norton, 1985. 350 pp., paper, $13.95. ISBN 0-393-31604-1

Feynman, Richard P. and Ralph Leighton. What Do YOU Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. New York: Bantam, 1989. 255 pp., illus. Paper, $12.95. IBSN 0-533-34785-5

When I was 16 and first began to drive, my father made it clear early on that I would be responsible for the maintenance of my car. So when the car was due for its annual safety inspection, I dutifully drove to the local garage. When I told my father that the car had failed because it needed new brakes, he looked at me and said, "Well, what are you waiting for? Go put new brakes on."

I knew my father well enough not to bother protesting that I had no earthly idea how to put new brakes on and no inclination to learn. Nothing was going to satisfy him short of me installing new brakes. So, bristling with outrage over having to do manual labor, I went outside and set to work. Reasoning that in order to replace the brakes, I had to get to them, I jacked up the car and took off its tires. Pondering my next move, I inspected the brakes and tried to figure out how they worked. After an hour or so, my father wandered out to check my progress and to tell me how to replace the brakes. A few hours later, I was quite proud of myself for having successfully replaced those brakes. My father would quite often confront me with problems in a new field and expect me to thrive. While I used to resent it, since all teenagers have to resent their parents for something, I now realize that that was one of the most valuable things he taught me. He taught me not to limit myself by preconceived notions of my own abilities, not to be scared of trying or learning something new, and not to stick with things that I know I'm good at. I've done this repeatedly in my life and have always surprised myself with just what I can do when I try. The most striking thing to me in Richard Feynman's books is that I see him making excursions out of his field of expertise and succeeding beyond his expectations every time.

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Laureate in physics, who in addition to his scientific accomplishments, left behind two informal quasi-autobiographical biographical books co-authored or "edited" by Ralph Leighton. Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do YOU Care What Other People Think? are also satires which offer a somewhat one dimensional view of Feynman's journey through life as a scientist. They are the product of drumming sessions between Richard Feynman and his congenial younger male friend or buddy, Ralph Leighton, in which Feynman talked while Leighton questioned and encouraged and led Feynman to reveal views and experiences of deep concern to Feynman. Feynman mocks society and questions authority, while at the same time conveying his life long fascination with science. Feynman's strong personality is evident in both books, but his most intimate emotions are not brought forth.

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! was the first book published by Feynman and Leighton. It is a series of anecdotes arranged in chronological order. These anecdotes present Feynman as an evolving scientist, from his childhood laboratory, through college, working at Los Alamos, and his years as a professor. Most, if not all of the tales are funny, some even ribald, but there is a serious undertone. Feynman seeks to entertain us, but at the same time he preaches at us. He tells us not to suffer fools, not to blindly follow authority, to question what we are told, and not to make the motions of learning, but to actually learn.

What Do YOU Care What Other People Think? was published after Feynman's death by Leighton and Feynman's third wife, Gweneth Feynman (nÚ Howarth). Much of the book is still Feynman's own words, also included is a selection of Feynman's correspondence, drawings, and a lecture. (Surely You're Joking also concludes with a lecture not originally intended for the book.) While still humorous, in comparison with the previous book, What Do YOU Care What Other People Think? is a more serious book. Feynman relates how his father influenced his career as a scientist by shaping his thought processes when he was young. Feynman also tells us of his first wife's death, and while he does his best to distance himself from emotion, he doesn't quite succeed, and the reader catches a rare glimpse of Richard Feynman, human being. And Feynman also tells the story of when he was on the Presidential Commission to study the Space Shuttle Challenger's explosion, his investigative efforts, their results, and the hassles and flaws of NASA.

In both books, Feynman repeatedly challenges himself with fields that as a physicist, he shouldn't be good at or interested in. He had the ability to try something new with enthusiasm, without thought of failure, and never questioning himself. Feynman never said to himself 'I'm a physicist, I'm not an artist, so therefore, I should be horrible at art, so I'm never going to try.' In fact, Feynman delves into art rather successfully: he takes drawing lessons, he practices, he draws topless dancers, and in climax, even has an art show of his work. In college, Feynman decides to visit the other sciences, he attends lectures in philosophy and then later in biology. He spends a sabbatical year during research in biology with some of the legends of biology, people who are mentioned in almost every biology textbook. Feynman publishes a paper and is invited to Harvard to give a seminar on his research by James Watson himself, "But that was my big moment! I gave a seminar in the biology department at Harvard! I always do that, get into something and see how far I can go" (SYJ, 76). In Los Alamos, Feynman amuses himself with the quest to become a master safecracker. While his antics are recreational, he is also trying to point out to the authorities just how inadequate and counterproductive their security efforts are. When Feynman is on the Challenger inquiry panel, he decides to learn about the space shuttle, theory, mechanics, and all. He has various engineers teach him all there was to know about the space shuttle. Feynman didn't do anything half-heartedly.

Feynman enjoys learning new things, partly for the challenge, and because he enjoys being good at things that he's not supposed to know how to do. While in Brazil teaching, Feynman learns to play the frigideira, and plays in a parade and a big samba contest. In Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!, he says about his frigideira efforts "I had succeeded. I got a kick out of succeeding at something I wasn't supposed to be able to do" (SYJ, 210). Back in the states, he continues his musical efforts, playing the drums, and with Ralph Leighton, he composes a percussion ballet, which won a national award. For fun, Feynman translates the Mayan Dresden Codex from scratch and gives a lecture on it. In Feynman's words, "I got a big kick out of giving my talk on 'Deciphering Mayan Hieroglyphics.' There I was, being something I'm not, again." (SYJ, 317).

Ironically, one of the few times Feynman is seen to be second-guessing himself in his books is in his own field. He comes home from a conference with a paper on parity violation and tells his sister, "I can't understand these things that Lee and Yang are saying. It's all so complicated" (SYJ, 248). His sister gives him the confidence he needs to read the paper slowly, and then Feynman finds the paper rather simple and obvious. He even improves the theory, changing some of the formulas. Another example of Feynman struggling occurs when he has to write a paper on Faust for his college philosophy class. After deciding it was hopeless, he is convinced by his fraternity brothers to write a different theme, and then try to work what he wrote into Faust. Again, the encouragement was all Feynman needed to succeed, and he gets a B+ on his paper.

Both these books are highly entertaining, interesting, and easy to read. Some may take offense to Feynman's overwhelming self-confidence, his apparent success in everything he tries. His disdain for those he considers fools may irritate, even alienate the reader. Feynman's portrayal of women is not flattering, from his perspective or theirs. He ogles them; he attempts to sleep with them; and you get the distinct impression he doesn't consider them much more than sex objects. But I think it is important to keep in mind that these books portray Feynman from drumming sessions with his good friend and young companion, Ralph Leighton, brimming with personality and larger than life, confiding in the young man. A truer or fuller representation of what Feynman thought of women is shown when he talks about Arlene Greenbaum and his sister Joan Feynman. He treats both with respect, even though through sibling rivalry he constantly has to one-up his sister.

Both books are also apparently light reading that I would recommend to almost anyone. I think they're particularly useful in reminding the reader to live life to the fullest, do things that you are passionate about, and to challenge yourself. Don't just make the motions of living, or learning for that matter. The books present science in a graspable method, which helps those that have difficulty accessing science because of the terminology and sometimes obscurity of its theories. The books remind the readers to apply what they have learned to real life.


Dabney House, Cal Tech

*Addendum

In the summer of 2003 I revised paragraphs 3, 4, 5, and 9. In the original versions of these paragraphs, Catriona did not even mention Ralph Leighton's name.

In the spring of 2003 I had an opportunity to listen to the tapes from which the two famous Feynman books derive. (I thank Eric Slone for allowing me to listen to the raw unedited tapes.) They demonstrate that very like Boswell's Life of Johnson, where the biographer has shaped and directed and himself written with the Johnsonian ether, so Leighton acted as conduit, shaper, and editor of the two Feynman books to the point that without Leighton, they would not be what they are in content or form at all. Leighton organized the text; with Feynman, Leighton chose what to include and what to omit. Much of the content's point of view and some of its more embarrassing aspects (to Feynman's family) are the result of Feynman's confidence in his young friend. Leighton seems to have been a kind of son to Feynman, and Feynman a father figure to Leighton.

Na´vetÚ about biographical art (particularly in the cult that has grown up around Feynman's name), the mixed nature of the books (autobiography, biography, satire and sermon, and joke anecdotes), and reluctance to attribute these books to a man who is not famous, has no constituency to want to remember him and no particular prestige had by the later 1990s resulted in the erasure of Leighton's name from most places in the original publication of these two books. (The ironies here should not be lost on anyone who remembers Feynman's attitude towards uniforms, titles, and prizes.) Recently though (2006), Leighton has re-asserted his presence by publishing the two books as one (Classic Feynman), with his name again prominently displayed as "editor," a foreword by Freeman Dyson and an afterword by Alan Alda.

Ellen Moody


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