Wednesday, January 14th, 2015
Link: WonkBlog: Yes, the Federal Reserve has enormous power over who is president

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character
Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character by Richard P. Feynman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I first read this book a few years ago and I remember really liking it. So I was surprised to find that I only gave it 3 stars back then — which is lower than I remember but about right for where I am now. Unfortunately, I didn’t write a review back then so I will attempt to explain the same 3-star rating more carefully this time around.

Mr. Feynman is sort of a nerd hero these days. That’s not terribly surprising. He was a brilliant mind (he shared the Nobel prize with a couple of other gentlement “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles”.) who could make complex topics approachable even for the layman (some of his lectures are on YouTube. You should watch them). He combined his genius with a playfulness, so many of the stories in this book are about pranks and games he would play. He was fun and brilliant and approachable — almost the perfect public figure for the nerds of the world to unite around.

Except, as his book makes clear, he was an unapologetic jackass. It starts off almost innocently early on where he taunts restaurant servers by hiding their tips in ways that will make a huge mess for them to retrieve the money. But eventually, he starts learning full “pickup artist” techniques like “negging”. He actually says he didn’t like doing that and would stop but then in the very next chapter notes that he knows how to treat a different woman thanks to his lessons in being jackass.

There’s never a sense of remorse or growth and it seems like Feynman never saw anything wrong with treating people (especially women) like playthings and experiments.

In an autobiographical memoir, it’s difficult to separate out the person from the book. In fact, I can’t do it: I don’t really like Feynman anymore so I don’t really like his book.

That said…there is one story where someone is extremely excited by how awesomely Feynman was playing a cowbell. No human being in the history of our civilization has ever said that about someone playing a cowbell. This story is almost certainly a lie.

And if that story is a lie, maybe the other stories are too. Maybe the whole book is just one more of Feynman’s famous pranks and this time, the joke is on us.

That probably-false meta-narrative is, at least, enough to allow the rest of the book to provide some redemption. The writing style is simple without being boring and easily carries the reader from story to story and moment to moment — it’s easy to see why Feynman was such a good lecturer.

His chapter on the textbook selection of California seems increasingly relevant these days.

His final chapter on scientific integrity should probably be read by everyone. I think a lot of things would be better off more people were able to internalize an rigorous and evidence-based approach to figuring out how we know what we know.

For better or for worse, this book is part of the canon of nerd culture. And, for better or for worse, Feynman is a hero to that culture. But he probably shouldn’t be.