Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman!

I’ve had this book on my shelf for quite some while. I actually started reading it while in Dublin on a business trip some 6-8 months ago – got very amused by it, but at the time I was in the midst of two other books so had to leave it for some while and finish the others first.

A few weeks ago I picked it up again – and what a book! It is very much on course to be the best and most entertaining book I have read all year. There are some hard contenders in the pipeline but in terms of overall entertainment- and take-away-value I think this book is hard to beat.

I think I can describe Mr. Feynman pretty accurately with just one sentence:

The oldest and most knowledgeable child who ever lived

The full title of the book is: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) and especially the subtitle sure does describe Mr. Feynman accurately. His way of looking at the world is just so incredibly inspiring. He really sees the world through the eyes of a newborn child. He can’t encounter anything without having to know how it works. This thirst for knowing how and why things work inspire you to look differently at the world.

He underlines the importance of this several times throughout the book and especially in regards to education. At one point he joins a special advanced biology class, having no prior specific knowledge about biology. He gets a paper assigned which he reads and then has to give a presentation about in front of the class. It’s a paper about muscles, extensors and flexors which uses a cat as an example – there is one problem however; he can’t figure out where they’re located in relation to nerves or the cat itself for that matter. So he finds a “map of the cat” as he calls it and starts his presentation by outlining where all extensors, flexors and nerves are located on the cat. The class interrupts him and says: “Stop, stop – we know that already!” To which he answers:

Oh! – you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had 4 years of biology.

They has wasted time learning and trying to remember facts that they could have looked up in maximum two minutes time… This analogy is just so important! Why waste your time learning things that you can look up in two minutes? Why not save your precious memory space for knowledge that can actually help you understand both problems and the world in general. Later he also highlights a potential error with this type of learning because it makes you remember certain words, but not understand the underlying principles. This is great for passing an exam but bad for actually applying your knowledge to anything useful.

He also spends quite a lot of time explaining the importance of and joy of teaching others which to him was one of the most important activities of his life. He was by no means a guy that wanted to brag about his knowledge but at the same time he wasn’t afraid to speak up and display how knowledgeable he was either. Applying his curiosity of how things worked made him incredibly capable of applying his knowledge across all domains. This philosophy is exactly what he wanted to come across as he taught classes and had students challenge his beliefs. His Lectures on Physics has for a long time been on my wishlist and has just been amplified by the reading of this book – if only they weren’t so damn expensive!

I could write and highlight so many important points from this book. There are invaluable advice on learning, science, living; even entrepreneurship and how to deal with women – which I found especially amusing and surprising to find in this book. There are so many reasons to pick up this book and the fact that it at times makes you laugh out loud just adds to this.

But to finish of, if you are still not convinced, aren’t sure who this Mr. Feynman actually is or just haven’t seen this before, then please watch this interview with him:

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