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Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character)

Bill Gates remembers Richard Feynman as the best teacher he never had.

Feynman was an American physicist and Nobel Prize winner for his groundbreaking work in quantum electrodynamics.

Incidentally, Feynman wasn’t famous just for being a great teacher and a world-class scientist; he was also quite a character. He translated Mayan hieroglyphics. He loved to play the bongos. While helping develop the atomic bomb at Los Alamos, he entertained himself by figuring out how to break into the safes that contained top-secret research. Feynman cultivated this image as a colorful guy. - Bill Gates

Hello everyone. Welcome back! This is yet another attempt to distill and digest ideas from books I found cool and interesting to read.

The one I found appropriate for this month is Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character).

As a quick intro: Richard Feynman was an American physicist, a Nobel Prize winner for his groundbreaking work in quantum electrodynamics, while also being part of the crew working on the Manhattan Project in WW2 and, if you are not a physicist, like me, maybe you stumbled upon he this diagram, which represents the mathematics behind how subatomic particles work. He was the guy who made it possible.

Now, Feynman was also well known for his casual, friendly, and dynamic style of teaching.

This is why he received the nickname The Great Explainer. He was able to twist and play with very hard to grasp concepts and make them easy to understand. If you want to see him in action, you can find videos from his lectures online.

Now, this book is full of short stories from taped conversations with Ralph Leighton — Feynman's drumming partner — and covers topics you would not think a physicist could be interested in, such as safe-cracking, bongo drumming, samba dancing, language learning, biology, art and curiosity as a whole.

The book is divided into 5 chapters, each one containing short Feynman-related stories and anecdotes.

And what I am going to do is pull/extract the key ideas I found interesting out of the book, effectively deciding to deconstruct Feynman's thinking patterns, personality, views on life and living, education and much more.

Timing & Taking Advantage of Opportunities

Jumping straight into the first chapter, From Far Rockway to MIT, what I noticed is that the introduction starts with Feynman writing: Some facts about my timing.

This hits you once you start reading the book.

The reason why this resonated with me is thanks to this almost unperceivable veil of humbleness. This describes that Feynman was aware of his situational context, which is why he used the word 'timing'. As I find timing an important ingredient in innovation and technology, with events that can be foreseen but where the information can become useless if the timing is suboptimal.

The most common example of this is Bill Gates, who was lucky enough to be born in 1955, rich family, and making him old enough to hammer and take advantage of his situation, having computers at the private school he was attending and also placing him next to the 1974's Altair 8800 (eight thousand eight hundred), which was the first do-it-yourself computer kit. You can read more about it in the book Outliers by Malcom Gladwell.

When I was about eleven or twelve I set up a lab in my house. It consisted of an old wooden packing box that I put shelves in. I had a heater, and I'd put in fat and cook french-fried potatoes all the time. I also had a storage battery and a lamp bank. - young Richard Feynman

He also was very much fond of radios, really enjoying buying and fixing old or broken ones just for the sake of it. Feynman enjoyed deconstructing things, tearing them apart, learning and understanding how they work, and putting them back together. Word quickly got out. There is this sob story where young Feynman received a call from the hotel his aunt was running asking him to come in and fix their radios. Armed with a simple screwdriver, shaking confidence and his curiosity, the boy went to the hotel and fixed the radio. There was a mix of luck, timing, and persistence. He also had radios he could not fix, but as the jobs got more complex, he got himself more tools and learned more about fixing them even faster. Young Richard eventually got hired by random acquaintances to fix radios, converting DC sets to AC sets and also fixing roof antennas. He was skillful indeed and, he was cheap, as he was just a kid. So, people hired him. This was happening during the Great Depression, a time when people had no money to pay a specialized individual to fix their retro tech. So they were satisfied with a young lad that could do it for cheap. Now, the key lesson I've managed to pull out is about being aware of your situational context, of your unfair advantage (in Feynman's case the passion for technology), and hammering on each opportunity you get. Even though you might not be that confident at the beginning, simply remembering that the things around you were built by people just like yourself can be a great mental trick you can use. And even if things don't work out as you were expecting, you will still have a lot to learn out of each piece of experience. Also, doing things for free when you are just starting out while keeping an active student mindset.

Getting out of your comfort zone (Princeton years)

Now, Feynman joined MIT, originally majoring in mathematics and then switching to electrical engineering. Only to later switch to Physics hitting a perfect score on the graduate school entrance exams to Princeton University.

The reason why he went to Princeton was thanks to one of his professors, who unveiled the opportunity for Feynman to see the world and get a taste for the different and the unknown.

As young Richard was too much attached to the idea of MIT, the best school for science in the country.

In Feynman's words, Princeton was an imitation of an English school.

Feynman was oftentimes rough and unpolished. He cared more about being right or wrong than the standard operating procedures and aesthetics of the Academia.

He also knew that he is going to be judged for his informal manners and not being able to integrate socially.

In fact, this is how the title of the book came to be.

As Princeton was an imitation of an English school such as Oxford or Cambridge, wannabe fancy people could be found everywhere.

So there is this story with young Feynman fellow being invited to the dean's tea party with other students as well.

Again, he was rough and unpolished and also a bit afraid of screwing something up.

So when a lady asked him how would he take his tea, either with cream or with lemon - Feynman said 'both'.

And then she replied: "Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman!" in a British way.

Now, he learned a lot of different things from different schools.

And one of them was that technology always wins.

Technology wins & thinking differently

Among a handful of principles that stuck in my mind when reading the book, I found the idea that technology and truth will eventually win.

What struck Feynman different about Princeton was the visible resemblance to his lab back home.One day he wanted to see the cyclotron, which is a type of compact particle accelerator that produces radioactive isotopes that can be used for imaging procedures.They also had one at MIT, his old school, but the reason Feynman got interested in this one was due to the way people at Princeton worked with such a machine.

The whole cyclotron was there in one room, and it was complete absolute chaos! It reminded me of my lab at home. Nothing at MIT had ever reminded me of my lab at home. I suddenly realized why Princeton was getting results. They were working with the instrument. They built the instrument; they knew where everything was, they knew how everything worked. - Feynman at Princeton

He also found that - sometimes - books were not tackling all of the world's complexities which Feynman observed.

He used to say that “These books always simplify things so the world will be more like they want it to be….”

From this point of view, he understood why his professor asked him to go to another school for his graduate work. Learning what the rest of the world is like will eventually support one's evolution, adding new influences and fresh ideas into the mix. New ways to look at things and analyze one's work and life.

This was also getting Feynman closer to other bright minds of his generation such as Einstein or Von Neumann who were in the audience of his first seminar. Contemplating his talk on that seminar, he said:

The moment I start to think about the physics, and have to concentrate on what I’m explaining, nothing else occupies my mind–I’m completely immune to being nervous. So after I started to go, I just didn’t know who was in the room. I was only explaining this idea, that’s all. - Feynman at Princeton

My take on this one is that ultimately, the solution, the outcome should be prioritized instead of thinking about the weight of your audience, the emotions surrounding that audience, the criticism, the debates, the follow-ups. Compose, read and write like nobody is watching, because oftentimes, nobody is watching.

And remember that education feels better when the process of getting educated is organic. If Feynman was obsessed with something, like fixing his radios, he would probably spend the whole day thinking and working on fixing the problem. Nobody was forcing him to do it and be part of a program that's asking for streamlined completionism.

Other interesting bits

Some other Feynman thoughts I found relatable are in a way funny but also entrancing and worth thinking about.At one point he gave the following advice on how to be a genius. (1)

You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say: “How did he do it? He must be a genius!"

No taking yourself too seriously (2) can also be good for one's mental well-being. Understand that you are a student of life. While Feynman was indeed a rationalist, his sense of humor was insane. He really enjoyed joking around, even with his fellow physicists working on the Manhattan Project.

Question Everything, pay attention the the levels of abstraction (3)

Feynman was indeed somehow obsessed with solving often weird puzzles. Getting answers to questions nobody asked or bothered to ask, as the answer might not be fruitful or lead to a serious end goal. There's a story where Feynman was inside Cornell University's cafeteria and he saw a guy throwing a plate. And that plate was wobbling in the air. Feynman was intrigued at how the Cornell medallion on the plate rotated faster than it wobbled. He tried to figure out the equations of wobbles. He explained excitedly to his physicist colleague, Hans Bethe, about what he had discovered. Bethe thought it was unimportant to work the dynamics out. However, Feynman decided he was going to do whatever he liked and enjoyed. He would still do physics like he used to “play” with physics in high school. He did not have to put himself on immense pressure to get some kind of important results or accomplishments. That decision freed and cleared his mind. He went on to calculate and relate electron orbits with Dirac Equation and electrodynamics. All of those work in quantum electrodynamics eventually won him and his two other colleagues a Nobel Prize. Feynman’s optimism and empathy allowed him to connect to people in a very human, warm way. His curiosity, creativity and contrarian viewpoints gave him the ability to do special things. He was meant to rewrite textbooks, create new equations and change the lives of millions. But the reason one might want to find an answer to this type of question is mainly to satisfy one's curiosity.

Closing thoughts

Understand that you are in control of your time. Be open to experimentation. If you are new to a field, either that being something that might seem complex such as physics, mathematics or even something that's more down to earth such video production, writing, sketching. You need to allow yourself room to work but also to play. Everything comes through experimentation. And if you manage to find a way so that work can become play you might be setting yourself on the path to freedom.