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Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman - Book Review & Highlights

4 min read
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman - Book Review & Highlights

Table of contents

🚀 The Book in 3 Sentences
  1. Rote memorization is not learning. You have to understand concepts to learn.
  2. Nothing is fun when you only do it because you’re required to. Play with the subjects you love, don’t just “do” them.
  3. You don’t have to have a purpose for everything you do. Sometimes, it’s just enough to do things because you merely enjoy it.
🎨 Impressions

A professor recommended this book to me. He said it was an autobiography of Feynman’s, and it was pretty interesting. I didn’t fully believe him but still read the book to see how a Nobel Prize-winning physicist thinks.

Oh boy was he right. I haven’t read many autobiographies, but I’d imagine this one is one of the funniest and most entertaining autobiographies. A lot of the content isn’t hard to understand—Feynman makes it fairly easy for the general public to appreciate his stories. Although a couple of the middle chapters are convoluted, it doesn’t take much away from the storytelling itself.

Feynman is an incredible mind and storyteller. I think the combination of his inquisitive nature with his frivolity makes the book an amusing read. You just have to read the book. It’s hard to describe it.

Before reading the book, I read a negative review on Goodreads saying something along the lines of, “Feynman is funny, but his stories are very condescending.” I think, in general, it’s hard for people like Feynman not to be condescending just by nature. When people are extraordinarily gifted in their field, it’s hard not to come across as patronizing.

Star Rating


Who Should Read It?

If you’re someone that enjoys mischievous stories about seemingly random objects/events, you’ll like this book. If you’re interested in how Nobel Prize-winning scientists think, you’ll like this book too.

☘️ How the Book Changed Me
  • I’ve been convinced that autobiographies can be just as entertaining as other nonfiction categories.
  • The book reminded me to treat everything as a game and to have fun, even with complex topics.
  • Feynman indirectly sheds light on how “geniuses” aren’t necessarily born “better” than everyone else. Rather, they fiddle with their beloved subjects more than anyone else does.
  • Feynman reminded me that learning takes effort. Knowing facts about a particular topic doesn’t constitute learning when you don’t understand why those facts are true.
✍️ My Top 3 Quotes
  • It was a brilliant idea: You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.
  • So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.
  • I feel that human beings should treat human beings like human beings.
📒 Highlights

Here are a couple of important stories and lessons from Feynman:

Feynman would mess around with his roommates and fraternity a lot. At MIT, they got into “an argument as to whether urine just ran out of you by gravity, and [Feynman] had to demonstrate that that wasn’t the case by showing them that you can pee standing on your head.” I think it’s rather funny that Feynman stood on his head instead of just pointing it upwards.

Feynman was at some dining hall or lounge area, and the physicists were near the mathematicians. The physicists “decided that ‘trivial’ means ‘proved.’” This seems particularly true. If you look at many high school “mathematicians” who talk about AMC/AIME problems, they’ll call them trivial just because they know how to do them. I guess math is just a discovery of what’s known but unproven.

When Feynman was in pre-college school (I don’t remember if it was elementary, middle, or high school), his math teacher gave him a calculus textbook because he knew everything in class. So, he learned calculus through that. Later, when he was at MIT/Princeton, he helped some students integrate through a technique that he learned in the textbook, but they hadn’t learned. I think this exemplifies how the “trivialization” of a problem often just takes a change in perspective.

This is just a random quote, but Feynman said, “He was doing what I was supposed to be good at, ten times better. That was quite a lesson to me.” It reminds us that we all need to be humble about our accomplishments.

Feynman was burnt out with physics at some point in his career. He wasn’t doing things for fun, but rather because he had to teach with his professorship. He realized he had stopped playing with physics and was just working on it. So, he decided to play with it, spun something in the air, observed it, and made some equations to describe the object’s rotational motion. Ironically, that served as inspiration for his Nobel Prize-winning discovery. The lesson: play, play, play.

“I learned from her that every woman is worried about her looks, no matter how beautiful she is.” It’s a good reminder that no matter what our “dream body” is, we’ll never be satisfied. So, we might as well love what we’re given.

At the end of the book, Feynman describes how our society is plagued with cargo cult science. Essentially, every researcher’s job is to delineate not only their hypothesis and its degree of truth and potential errors and competing theories. Science is a method of discovering the truth. Trying to hide problems or approaches that could disprove your theory because of your ego isn’t needed in science.

Michel Liao

Michel Liao

Boise, Idaho, United States
Hello! I'm a sophomore studying computer science at Princeton. I like reading, rock climbing, and running.