Richard P. Feynman's SURELY YOU MUST BE JOKING, MR. FEYNMAN!
Book review by Dennis D. McDonald
One impressive thing about this collection of personal history anecdotes by famed physicist Richard Feynman is what it says about his ability to focus on one thing at a time. These things could be quite diverse and included theoretical physics problems, learning how to draw, and figuring out how to get a Las Vegas showgirl to have drinks with him.
What do I mean by “focus”? In Feynman’s case it appeared to be the ability to do several things including (a) pay attention to only one stream of information relevant to the problem at hand, (b) process the information from the perspective of that particular problem, and (c) ignore all other information and other perspectives.
Item (c) provide some of the most interesting points of the book. Feynman recounts several instances where he finds himself incapable of participating in some activity because he lacks the ability to adopt point (b) despite his obvious enjoyment of the diverse pleasures offered by painting, art, and barhopping. He seems to hit a brick wall concerning things like talking with philosophers or Talmudic scholars, learning Japanese, and participating in government advisory commissions where he saw no connection with his acknowledged expertise in physics and math.
Thankfully he relaxed his refusal to serve on government commissions when he agreed to help review elementary level math textbooks (discussed in this book) and to serve on the Challenger disaster investigation commission. Otherwise the latter effort would have missed out on his perspective as documented in his Appendix F-personal observations on the reliability of the shuttle.
That short document is one of the saddest things I’ve read as Feynman works through documenting the divergence between NASA management’s and NASA engineering’s risk assessments. He does it by focusing on numbers, probability, and human judgment.
We all know, sadly, the results of the judgment errors he points out. The reader detects not only sadness but anger underlying Feynman’s assessment. His concluding sentence in the Challenger appendix is profound:
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
That quotation also suggests a key element that permeates the mostly humorous anecdotes recounted in Surely You Must be Joking, Mr. Feynman! He was definitely not good at tolerating fools.
Review copyright © 2014 by Dennis D. McDonald, Ph.D. Dennis is a project management consultant based in Alexandria, Virginia. He has worked throughout the U.S. and in Europe, Egypt, and China. His clients for project planning and project management have included the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, the Environmental Protection Agency, the World Bank, AIG, ASHP, and the National Library of Medicine. In addition to consulting company ownership and management his experience includes database publishing and data transformation, integration of large systems, corporate technology strategy, social media adoption, statistical research, and IT cost analysis. His web site is located at www.ddmcd.com and his email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter he is @ddmcd.