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Review: What Do You Care What Other People Think?

I recently reviewed Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!. It was good enough that I had to get the sequel.

What Do You Care What Other People Think? is another collection of stories and anecdotes written by and/or about Richard Feynman. A bit in contrast to the first book, rather than a chronological series of anecdotes, this book focuses on a couple of main topics.

Feynman discusses his first wife in some detail. Of particular interest, he describes his and his wife's brutal devotion to honesty in their relationship, even in the face of highly unpleasant truths (terminal disease, in this case). It's the honesty of a scientist, carried into "everyday" life. This was bittersweet for me to read, because the story has a sad ending.

There is also a short series of letters from Feynman to others, where he discusses the silliness of pomp and circumstance, e.g. his foibles and breaches of protocol when meeting some king or other. As someone who hates ceremony, I got a huge kick out of these.

A large part of the book is devoted to discussing the Presidential Commission which investigated the cause of the Challenger shuttle disaster. Feynman's full report is included in the book as well.

As someone interested in astronomy and space flight (and who isn't interested in those?) I found this fascinating. There's a lot of behind-the-scenes stuff. Engineers are painted in a good light, managers and politicians not so much. (Software engineers come out looking especially good, which made me feel (unjustifiably) good about myself by proxy.) There are some diagrams and a lot of technical discussion of the shuttle. Not so much that it drowns the narrative, but enough that I'm probably going to spend the next week reading Wikipedia on the subject now.

Feynman explains his simple methods at getting to the truth in the investigation. Go talk to the guys who put things together. Get your hands on some O-ring rubber and test its resistance to temperature yourself in a glass of ice water. Cut to the heart of the matter. It's good stuff.

Ultimately, as you know if you've read the report, Feynman rips NASA apart, showing that they were fooling themselves into believing the shuttle was safer than it really was. The last sentence of the report says everything: "Nature cannot be fooled."

The last section of the book discusses the value of science. More specifically, Feynman discusses the value of doubt. I very much liked how the chapter ends:

It is our responsibility as scientists , knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

If there's one trait I had to pick to separate good people from bad, it would be the ability to admit being wrong. And if I had to separate the good from the excellent, it would be not just the ability to admit being wrong, but the eagerness to be proved wrong.

There's a certain kind of devotion to the truth that not many people achieve, and maybe not many people even want to achieve. There's comfort in thinking that you know things. It's very tempting. I think it's probably partly why most people are religious. I suspect it's a big reason why so many people are so stubbornly wrong about so many things in general. I suspect this comfort is an enormous source of suffering in the world.

But there's another kind of comfort that people miss out on. It's the comfort of knowing that although you're probably wrong about a lot of things, you're trying your hardest to be right. You pay the price of being aware of your own state of ignorance, but you can rest a bit easier knowing that you're maybe, hopefully, inching towards the truth. I never heard the word "freedom" used to describe this feeling before, as Feynman does above, but it fits.

That's why I like reading about Feynman and reading Feynman's words. He seemed to live this philosophy as well as anyone could hope to.

August 06, 2010 @ 3:12 PM PDT
Cateogory: Book Reviews

Review: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

I'm probably the last person on earth to read "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", a collection of stories and anecdotes from the life of Richard Feynman. But better late than never.

I'll keep this short. Feynman was the kind of nerd every nerd wishes he was, in one way or another. He was socially awkward. He was blunt and tactless. He felt out of place much of the time. And it was surprising to see how often Feynman expressed feelings of inadequacy. He wrote about being highly intimidated when talking in front of big names in physics, and jealous of the math abilities of some other people.

But none of that stopped him from having an exciting life. In fact he turned these traits to his advantage. He had romantic success, often via very highly unconventional means (e.g. walking up to girls and asking them for sex outright; they often said yes). His bluntness was seen as an admirable trait: where others might be intimidated by a famous physicist, Feynman would give his honest opinion, and that was often appreciated.

And Feynman went far outside his comfort zone. He did a stint in biology, even though he knew nothing of biology at the time. He went to Brazil and joined a samba band. He sold drawings and paintings for a while. He played drums for a ballet.

I picked up at least three lessons from this book.

  1. Try new things, even if you suck at them. Life is boring if you stick to what you're good at.

  2. Be intellectually honest. Brutally so. It's the only way to do good science, and arguably the only way to live a good life. I've always believed this, and Feynman hammers the point home well.

  3. Even the best and brightest of us feel insecure at times. You shouldn't let it stop you.

On top of all of that, reading of Feynman's time at Los Alamos working on The Bomb was a fascinating piece of history. I highly recommend this book.

And watch as much of Feynman on Youtube as you can find. It never ceases to be fascinating.

July 26, 2010 @ 9:19 AM PDT
Cateogory: Book Reviews