I finally got around to reading “Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman”, a book that has been on my TODO list for years. And it was everything I was expecting, and so much more.

The book is a set of stories written by Feynman himself. There is no plot, no overall story, no particular point. Written by anyone else, it would be mind-numbingly boring, but Feynman is such an amazing character that every single thing he writes turns into an adventure and a lesson about life. I kept smiling and nodding all the time throughout the book and I found the irresistible urge to take notes. Next thing I know, I had two entire pages of quotes and notes about my reaction to Feynman’s adventures.

So I thought I would share some of my reactions to these stories.

Feynman has always had an interesting relationship with the army. When the war started, he felt it was his duty to do something for his country so he went to see a recruiting officer and asked him how he could help. He was told that all he could do was join boot camp and then be assigned somewhere. Disappointed, he went walking in a park to think and he finally came to the following conclusion:

To hell with it! I’ll wait awhile. Maybe something will happen where they can use me more effectively

A few years later, Feynman joined the Manhattan Project, which led to the creation of the first atomic bomb. His work in Los Alamos ended up being instrumental in ending World War II, so his hope that he would be able to help his country in some other way than going through boot camp turned out to be quite prophetic, indeed.

I have always had an absolute fascination for the Manhattan Project, and if anything, I am sad that Feynman didn’t dedicate more time telling stories about his time there. He started as a pretty low grade physicist but he quickly got promoted and he ended up becoming a key scientist to the entire effort whose mastery of physics and powers of listening gained him a universal respect among his peers. When he joined, he reported to a physicist called Hans Bethe, and together, they came up with the Bethe-Feynman formula (obviously), which calculates the yield of a nuclear explosion.

I found this quite interesting and I tried to get a look at this equation, but I came up completely empty. Google, Wikipedia, Wolfram Alpha all seem to know a bit about the formula but they never show it. I had to pay close attention to an interview of Bethe to find out why: the formula is classified, and it continues to be today. Bethe has this to say about his invention with Feynman:

We extended Serber’s formula for the yield of a nuclear weapon, and there is the Bethe-Feynman formula, which I think is still secret and has worked very well.

I didn’t even think it was possible to have a fundamental scientific finding classified, but such is the case for this formula, which has probably been deemed too dangerous to be placed in everybody’s hands. I am guessing that all the countries that joined the US in the atomic club in the following years (Russia in 1949, the UK in 1952, France in 1960) have probably had to discover this formula on their own.

Feynman has another funny story about the secrecy that surrounded the Los Alamos camp and the project that was going to take place there. This happened in the early days, as he was planning his move from Princeton to New Mexico:

We were told to be very careful – not to buy our train ticket in Princeton, for example, because Princeton was a very small station, and if everybody bought train tickets to Albuquerque, New Mexico, in Princeton, there would be some suspicions that something was up. And so everybody bought their tickets somewhere else, except me, because I figured if everybody bought their tickets somewhere else…

So when I went to the train station and said,

“I want to go to Albuquerque, New Mexico”.

The man says:

“Oh, so all this stuff is for you!”

We had been shipping out crates full of counters for weeks and expecting that they didn’t notice the address was Albuquerque. So at least I explained why it was that we were shipping all those crates: I was going out to Albuquerque!

So much for secrecy…

Accomodations in Los Alamos were pretty sparse, but as the project started gaining momentum, they received increased amounts of machines, material, various devices, and even computers (this was in the early 1940’s). Feynman would later gain some interest into computers (he became fairly involved with a computer known as the Connection Machine) but even in these early days, he captured a very accurate truth about computers:

Well, Mr. Frankel, who started this program, began to suffer from the computer disease that anybody who works with computers now knows about. It’s a very serious disease and it interferes completely with your work. The trouble with computers is you play with them.

Surely, all the computer scientists of the world can relate to that…

Here is another paragraph that got a “Uh… what?!?” from me when I read it:

It looked as if something might happen at any minute, so I arranged ahead of time with a friend of mine in the dormitory to borrow his car in an emergency so I could get to Albuquerque quickly. His name was Klaus Fuchs. He was the spy, and he used his automobile to take the atomic secrets away from Los Alamos down to Santa Fe. But nobody knew that.

Yikes! There was a spy in Los Alamos. I never knew that, and I wish Feynman had expanded a bit more about his interaction with this person. As it turns out, Fuchs’ work helped create the atomic bomb but his later work was also used in the creation of the first hydrogen bomb. He confessed to being a spy in 1950 and he was subsequently arrested and charged with espionage.

The most riveting part of Feynman’s recollection of his time at Los Alamos is his account of the test of the bomb (the very first time an atomic bomb exploded on our planet):

They gave out dark glasses that you could watch it with. Dark glasses! Twenty miles away, you couldn’t see a damn thing through dark glasses. So I figured the only thing that could really hurt your eyes (bright light can never hurt your eyes) is ultraviolet light. I got behind a truck windshield, because the ultraviolet can’t go through glass, so that would be safe, and so I could see the damn thing.

Time comes, and this tremendous flash out there is so bright that I duck, and I see this purple splotch on the floor of the truck. I said, “That’s not it. That’s an after-image.” So I look back up, and I see this white light changing into yellow and then into orange. Clouds form and disappear again – from the compression and expansion of the shock wave.

Finally, a big ball of orange, the center that was so bright, becomes a ball of orange that starts to rise and billow a little bit and get a little black around the edges, and then you see it’s a big ball of smoke with flashes on the inside, with the heat of the fire going outwards.

All this took about one minute. It was a series from bright to dark, and I had seen it. I am about the only guy who actually looked at the damn thing – the first Trinity test. Everybody else had dark glasses, and the people at six miles couldn’t see it because they were all told to lie on the floor. I’m probably the only guy who saw it with the human eye.

Finally, after about a minute and a half, there’s suddenly a tremendous noise – BANG, and then a rumble, like thunder – and that’s what convinced me. Nobody had said a word during this whole thing. We were all just watching quietly. But this sound released everybody – released me particularly because the solidity of the sound at that distance meant that it had really worked.

The man standing next to me said, “What’s that?”

“That was the Bomb.”

This is just a tiny fraction of what Feynman has to say in this first account of his life (he wrote a few more story books, follow the Amazon link at the top for more details). One of the most amazing things to me while reading these stories was the tone that Feyman used. It’s filled with candor and sometimes even naïveté. For someone who is probably one of the most brilliant minds that ever lived, Feynman is consistently showing a remarkable lack of assurance and self confidence. He never thinks he’s good enough and he often turned down offers to speak or very highly compensated positions just because he thought he didn’t deserve these opportunities.

This is the testimony of a scientific mind in its rawest form, an intellect that doesn’t care much about influence, etiquette, politics or seeking favors. If it’s not scientifically accurate, it’s worthless, and this sheer honesty and absolute dedication to the scientific truth is what made Feynman one of the most brilliant minds of the century.

But it’s not just that: Feynman’s interest and curiosity for life knew no bounds and his forays into biology, drumming, painting and foreign languages (unsurprisingly, he became very good in all these areas) contribute to making his life an absolutely riveting read.

Hopefully, these excerpts whetted your appetite and you will want to find out more about this exceptional man.