Sunday, October 10, 2004

Those Wacky Scientists! (A half-assed review of "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character)

No equivocation here: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman": Adventures of a Curious Character should be a required text for anybody who teaches—in any field—at the secondary or post-secondary level. In truth, it ought to be handed out to every high school sophomore as part of their math and science education. Feynman unabashedly revels in his horndoggery, though, which would make the book too controversial to get by high school curriculum hawks. (If you like the "Revenge of the Nerds" aspect of a famous theoretical physicist cavorting with Vegas show girls, then there are plenty of amusing stories here for you!)

Feynman's life, as revealed through this collection of his personal anecdotes, was itself a treatise on how to live to the fullest. Feynman does not connect the dots of his adventures and discoveries for his readers. One by one, his funny stories reveal the greater threads of his life: the rewards of intellectual curiosity; the importance of collaboration in problem-solving; and the winning nature of integrity and humor.

Since I was not a science guy in my school days, I had only a vague awareness of Feynman as a famous Nobel prize-winner. You can imagine how intimidating that might make a book of his to somebody who was shamed out of continuing his study of mathematics in college by an extraordinarily bad professor. I read the book on Edward Tufte's recommendation, who exhorts his audience to consider "What would Feynman do?" as a great way to think about problems, including some ethical ones. (Although on some of the greater ethical issues, Feynman was fond of punting.) I've since discovered that Feynman is a legendary hero to many scientists.

Feynman's achievements and interests extended into many disciplines, including drumming, languages, visual arts, and deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics. The lessons he has to teach beyond specific disciplinary ones may be the more enduring ones. The fundamental trick of education in any field is sparking the learner's curiosity. One cannot appreciate a good answer until one has learned to ask interesting questions. There's no doubt that Feynman was one of the most intellectually curious human beings of the 20th century; hence the double entendre in the book's title. If you're an educator, an educator-in-training, or especially if you're a student who feels adrift in your own education, I think Feynman is a great place to start stoking your own fires. He's all inspiration without an iota of dogma.

Surely You're Joking... closes with a lovely benediction for scholars, which I'll pass along here:

So I have just one wish for you—the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and were you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.


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