Of course, you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do, and that’s the end of you.

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character
Richard Feynman | 1984 | 391 Pages


The Plot

Surely You’re Joking is a collection of personal anecdotes penned by physicist and all-around eccentric Dr. Richard Feynman. A scientist’s memoir might not sound like the most exciting text, but Feynman was no average scientist. Sure, he worked on the Manhatten Project, won a Nobel Prize, and spent decades teaching at Cornell and Cat Tech. But he was also an avid bongo player, hobbyist safe cracker, painter, and so much more.


Feynman lived an insane life, and his stories reflect that insanity. He was a precocious child with a head for solving problems and carried that drive into his collegiate studies and career. The book jumps around, following a timeline that is mostly linear, but shifts constantly in theme. Some are stories about his scientific endeavors, some are about his social quirks, and some are about how he danced at Carnival in Brazil. Feynman was a man who collected hobbies and interests and got rather decent at many of them. It was fascinating to see that personal side of a man who also devoted their life to science and to the education of others.


My biggest gripe revolves around Feynman and his… let’s call them ‘backwards’ dating practices. He spends a small amount of the book talking about his ability to pick up women, and it comes off with a major ‘pick up artist vibe.’ Yes, these things happened in the 1950s and 60s when society was unfortunately far more misogynistic. But I couldn’t help but wonder how many guys today have read this and thought “this incredibly successful scientist used those techniques to get the girls, I should too!” Eww.

Interestingly, while Feynman talks about some of the women he went home with, he doesn’t really write much at all about any of wives besides the first one. She died of Tuberculosis while he was at Los Alamos, but until her death she seemed to match him in his love for puzzles and cyphers, and there are some charming stories about the  tricks they played. So while there were some chapters that rubbed my inner feminist the wrong way, there were others that portrayed Feynman as a man who did have respect for the women around him. It was an uneven portrayal, which is fair for such a complicated person.

Should You Read This?

If you’re looking for a non-fiction book or a biography that’s a little off-kilter, I would recommend this title. It’s the life of a scientist who also took part in so many things that one may not expect a Nobel Prize winner to do. (Like not take his own award ceremony seriously). He’s a flawed person, and shares stories that paint him both as an eccentric genius, and also as a bit of an ass. It’s a fascinating collection of anecdotes overall, and I expect I’ll read more from him in the future (like his hefty Lectures on Physics which have been gracing my bookshelf for about five years now…)