Richard Feynman (1918-1988) is truly one of the “Great minds of our time”. I have been reading many books by him and books about him for years now. I probably have 10 books written by him or about him on my shelf and borrowed a few others from libraries.
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” and “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” have been two of my first loves. The stories Feynman told were so much fun and yet so insightful at the same time. Some simple Google searches on the book titles will sure bring out many favourite passages by many people.
“No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman” by Christopher Sykes has a large collections of photos, some drawings by Dick, and stories from a long list of people that knew Dick really well. It is a book that I love and treasure. Christopher also produced the documentary I included at the end of this post.
“Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman” and “Richard Feynman: A Life in Science” are two books for general audiences that talk about Dick’s life. I love “Genius” and think “A Life in Science” is just a so-so book. Quoting Genius describes how Dick passed away still put tears into my eyes,
“He drifted toward unconsciousness. His eyes dimmed. Speech became an exertion. Gweneth [Dick’s wife] watched as he drew himself together, prepared a phrase, and released it: “I’d hate to die twice. It’s so boring.” After that, he tried to communicate by shifting his head or squeezing the hand that clasped his. Shortly before midnight on February 15, 1988, his body gasped for air that the oxygen tube could not provide, and his space in the world closed. An imprint remained: what he knew, how he knew.”
I love “QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter” because it is a book that is “a straighforward, honest explanation of … the theory of quantum electron-dynamics — for a nontechnical audience. It is designed to give the interested reader an appreciation for the kind of thinking that physicists have resorted to in order to explain how Nature behaves.“ [K: quantum electron-dynamics was the theory which Feynman later won his Nobel Prize on.] [Mar 6, 2012 update: Here is a link to a series of four QED lectures by Feynman in New Zealand, possibly quite close to what were transcribed into the book QED based on the Alix G. Mautner Memorial Lectures. [HT Peta Foster]]
“Most of the Good Stuff:” Memories of Richard Feynman is a great book of stories as told by many of Dick’s great friends and his little sister Dr. Joan Feynman (who was a Senior Scientist at the Jet Propulsion Lab before she retired in 2003). I finished this book in only two days at the end of 1996. Here is an excerpt from Joan’s chapter,
‘I was Richard Feynman’s first student and he was my first teacher. We were brother and sister, the only children in our family. When I was a baby, Richard would bundle me into my carriage and take me over to his friend Bernie’s house. There he would prop me up so I could watch the two boys work with the batteries, wires, rheostats, switches, and radio tubes they had collected for their “laboratory”. He was nine.
I soon graduated to larger tasks. We had a dog, a fox terrier (more or less), the kind you could see in circuses back then. The family taught him tricks, like sitting and begging, by patiently getting him to understand what was expected and then giving him a treat when he was successful. The dog worked hard for the dog biscuits and amazed the neighborhood children. Observing this, Richard decided that I was probably trainable too, and the most amazing trick he could think of to teach me was to do arithmetic. The problem was, what to give me for a treat? Our mother was very careful with our diet and I certainly couldn’t have candy between meals. But he was always resourceful. When I got a problem correct I was allowed to pull his hair until it hurt or, to be more exact, until he grimaced as if in pain. I remember standing in my crib, maybe three years old, yanking on his hair with great delight while he excitedly planned to surprise Bernie with my new trick. I had just learned to add two and three. I have always believed that the reason Richard had a full head of hair all his life was because I had done such a good job of strengthening the roots.’
My latest addition is “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track: The Letters Of Richard P. Feynman“. This book is a collection of Dick’s correspondences as selected and edited by his daughter Michelle. After Dick won his Nobel Prize, he made time to visit students at his high school newspaper and gave an interview with the school newspaper. He told the school newspaper that when he was a student at Far Rockaway High School, he was “no good in English, no good in languages, impossibly poor in drawing, and a goody-good boy in school. I’ve changed.” [K: I just love the quote.]
I’ve also read Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and in Life and love it. I initially didn’t like this book when it was first published as I probably wanted more Feynman and less Leonard Mlodinow (the author). But I have learned to love it as I aged. The idea of young mind seeking advice from the old genius really appeals to me. PlusMlodinow went on to become a writer and scriptwriter for TV series including Star Trek: The Next Generation and MacGyver.
As an aside, I also love “Albert Einstein, The Human Side“, a book of letters selected by his secretary of 27 years. I quote a part of a letter by Einstein, “Your letter shows me also that wisdom is not a product of schooling but of the lifelong attempt to acquire it.“
My most technical book on Dick has to be Jagdish Mehra’s “The Beat of a Different Drum: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman. Jagdish knew Dick for over 30 years and the idea of writing this book on Dick’s science and life was actually suggested by Dick himself. I skipped 70% of the book (just too technical for me) but the other 30% were good read. “Tuva or Bust! Richard Feynman’s Last Journey” was an ok book with some nice stories.
As part of the research for this entry, I discovered, to my great pleasure (as I haven’t seen it before), the following 40 minutes documentary by Christopher Sykes about Dick. Here are a few brief comments,
- The story and the lesson of the importance of “knowing something vs knowing their names” is just priceless.
- Notice the respect and proud in Dick’s eyes when he talked about his dad.
- Talks about learning Calculus at 13 by reading a book from the library!
- The moment that Dick talked about he realized that he knew more about something than his father was quite a touching moment.
- Dick’s discussion of whether his work deserves the Nobel Prize and his views on honour were truly priceless. The prize was finding the things out, the honours were the unreal things to Dick.
March 28, 2017 update: The old link to Christopher Sykes’ doc is dead but there are many Feynman docs and clips online. Here are a few docs and clip that I love.’
20201026 Adding a cool video tribute by Bill Gates “The best teacher I never had”