Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Reflections: Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman

The first and most striking thing about this book that I shall always remember is, Feynman's expression on the cover. His expression just about encapsulates his attitude, and the kind of life he led. An impish smile, a carefree demeanor exuding an informal, relaxed and affable body language, with a crinkled shirt, a carelessly tucked pen and the intimidating equations doodled on the blackboard, serving as a backdrop to his personality. To me, this cover gives a clear flicker of insight into what this book holds, the kinds of things this impish looking man would recount, and the tone he is likely to take.

I received this book as a gift from an extremely sweet friend, two years back. But in the midst of multiple moves, my nomadic existence and due to my incorrigibly pathetic absent-mindedness, I misplaced it. I know, what a horrible friend am I. And if my friend were to hear this, I can't imagine his disappointment, despite my attempts at redemption. But, after reading this book I understand his enthusiasm to get me to read it! It reflects not just the life of a Physics genius, but contains a hilarious collection of anecdotes from an eccentric man, who was genuinely certified as crazy :)

I have held Feynman in great respect and admiration. I thought reading this book would intensify my reverence for him, but contrary to such a lofty, humbling feeling, he has made me crave for a friend like him to liven up graduate life. I would absolutely love to have a professor like him (regardless of whether I would be worthy of being his student). Feynman was notoriously curious about science, and loved to play with and enjoy Physics. To him Physics was like a fun toy to crack open and figure out how it worked. His Nobel Prize was an inevitable, chance consequence, that he actually tried very hard to not accept. Yes, he was "bummed out" that the prize would attract unwanted attention from people and the media and that he would be bothered with interviews and talks with pompous people, when all he wanted to do was to teach and work with Physics, unperturbed by such extravaganza. He was a man who isolated many of life's complexities and lived by his very simple and fun rules, by being able to exercise freedom and integrity to do what he wanted with Physics.

Contrary to the stereotyped theoretical Physicists (aka Big Bang Theory types), Feynman is an idol of the quintessential "cool dude" - an excellent dancer, a suave and charming lady's man, a lauded bongo drummer, and a talented artist to have had his own gallery opening. Now add in his wit, his humor, his open-mindedness, his passion for puzzles, his mischievous ability to crack open any safe and any puzzle, his incredible IQ and pure intuitive genius, and he turns into a God for geeks. His versatility truly amazes me and is extremely inspiring. The man was ready to plunge into any adventure - right from getting into a nasty fist fight at a sleazy bar, to spending hours in a sense-deprivation tank to understand and experience hallucinations. True to his integrity, he never ever jumped to any conclusion about any topic, unless he collected enough evidence to prove/disprove his hypothesis. And he was the subject of many of his experimentation to understand alternative view points, however "paranormal" they sounded. If he could understand the inherent theory, test, experience and replicate the theory, he was happy. Such balanced open-mindedness, and analytical critiquing, even to question his own theories in Physics, is highly commendable. It's common for many engineers to abhor anything to do with art, poetry or literature. Such pursuits and interests are scoffed at, ridiculed and are dismissed as being empty, convoluted and meaningless. And it's sad that these conclusions are made without even trying to understand any field that falls outside the purview of science. But as a Nobel Prize winner, Feynman was open-minded enough that he desired to understand Art, and put in a lot of effort to scrupulously learn how to draw and sketch. So much so that he sold his sketches and had his own gallery opening. But most important of all, he finally understood how to appreciate Art and why people paid importance to it. This is a breakthrough for a scientist. This unadulterated curiosity was the impetus to all his experiences and is quite infectious. He couldn't care less if his actions would seem inappropriate, or be termed crazy by the dictates of social convention. If he wanted to understand whether humans were capable of tracking smell like dogs and bloodhounds, he got down and crawled on his knees to sniff the carpet to track his own footprints.

It's quite befitting to his nature that he be a rebel. He courted trouble with passion. He enjoyed defying rules, norms and conventions and loved to argue and protest. All he wanted was to be treated like a human being. Why burden oneself with so many rules, contracts and signatures? He found no reason. His frustration at dealing with social scientists was quite amusing, although it paints the social sciences in a very pitiful light. I'm of the view that fields such as anthropology, philosophy and sociology have been taking on a more scientific approach these days. Maybe if Feynman were around now, he would be a better judge. And I have to reiterate his enthusiasm and genuine interest to comprehend such elusive fields. I was laughing out at his earnest experiment to study his own dreams to write a paper for his Philosophy class. With a confused and hyperactive psyche, my sleeps are filled with bizarre and byzantine dreams. Despite my attempts to study them objectively as I am dreaming, I have not succeeded much. It's interesting that you can call upon your consciousness to give you the awareness that you are sleeping and dreaming as you are having the dreams. Due to my propensity for nightmares, I have somehow reached a state where I can tell myself (in the throes of a scary nightmare, where something is chasing me), that it's all a dream and I shouldn't worry which monster or dinosaur is chasing me. But Feynman leaped higher and could direct his dreams to take on the turns he wanted them to, so that he could analyze if his sense of logic, and his sensory perceptions could work as he dreamed. This is like a recursive consciousness within a state of altered consciousness (dream) and Feynman's ability to control his mind in such a way, is outstanding. He always accomplished such difficult and nuanced things with nonchalance that he makes them seem ridiculously simple!

Having raved about him so much, I need to mention my disappointment as well. With complete chapters dedicated to how he picked up girls at a bar, how he figured to get pretty blonds to sleep with him, his philandering escapades with chorus girls and his unabashed obsession with beautiful girls, really put me off. He unfortunately comes across as a womanizer, although his sense of ethics is not out of line. Perhaps I am just a prude to be bothered by his open admissions, for I can imagine how he would truly be an idol to many guys. But my main disappointment is that he could allow himself to be so shallow. With a great mind, capable of so many creative thoughts, I'm just surprised that his interest in women didn't go beyond their looks. But I may be reading too many things into an incomplete picture.

Finally, his writing is exactly as I expected - straight to the point, no frills or fancies, minimal emotions, lots of wit, and simple, informal language. It's almost as if you can hear him talk, waving his hands and making funny gestures. His thoughts on how to write Science textbooks that convey clear emphasis on the underlying fundamentals of Physics such that children are exposed to the joys of Physics, and can relate to and get fueled with curiosity, really made me wish that I had had him teach me at least one topic in Physics. Despite my little disappointment with him, there is lot to be learned and imbibed from this eccentric genius.

This book is a fun journey through Feynman's colorful life. His curious and adventurous spirit leaps out of the book and takes charge of you at least for a few hours, if not more.


SUMI said...

I'd read this book several years back and the then (perhaps immature) me thought he was being narcissistic! :-))) Now my husband recently got this book and read it. Plan to read it again and see what I think. BTW do you know of the Feynman lecture series posted for free on the Microsoft Research website? I'll share the link with you once I can place it. I started listening to those, but not got a chance to go back to them either, cause of my new completely packed life. I'd seen this post when it was just posted, when I went to my blog a few weeks back and had wanted to read it and leave a comment, finally remembered and got a chance to do it too!

I have to admit, I havent' read your post fully yet, but will do soon... From what I've read so far, you've enjoyed it and related to him in some ways... cool! :)

Neeraja said...

Nice to hear from you Sumi!

And thanks for the tip about his lecture series! Would love to get a link of that when you get a chance :)

Yeah I quite enjoyed the book but for a few chapters where he seemed to just brag about how he scored with girls! And I admit that did seem narcissistic and I was utterly disappointed!

SUMI said...

Here you go :)


Neeraja said...

Thanks a lot Sumi!