Wednesday, November 30, 2011

“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” in Quotes

When I was in college, the only books on physics that I could really understand were written by Richard Feynman.

Six years later, I am beginning to rediscover him. From a different perspective.

Recently, I read his book "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!" and found it to be thoroughly amusing. The book is a collection of self-narrated stories of mischief from his super-adventurous life. I found out from it that Feynman's brilliance and rationality extended beyond his work in physics.

Here are some of my favorite quotes from the book*.

On honesty and integrity in being a scientist:
"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool." [p. 313]
"We've learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature's phenomena will agree or they'll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven't tried to be very careful in this kind of work." [p. 312]
"Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools--guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus--THAT, I CANNOT STAND!" [Emphasis original; pp. 258-259]
[The last quote appears in the book as Feynman's describes his experience at an "inter-disciplinary" conference. He was a panelist in a debate on how to achieve "the ethics of equality". The participants put forward their proposals, but kept evading any attempt to discuss what is meant by the phrase "the ethics of equality". Feynman argued that it's futile to debate without defining one's terms. He said, "So, in my opinion, we had no dialogue at all. Instead, we had nothing but chaos!" At this point, he was attacked with even more unintelligible phrases, such as, "Don’t you think that order can come from chaos?" Feynman vowed not to attend any interdisciplinary conferences.]

On mind-altering drugs, and the joy of thinking:
"I had once thought to take drugs, but I got kind of scared of that: I love to think, and I don’t want to screw up the machine." [p. 301]
"You see, I get such fun out of thinking that I don't want to destroy this most pleasant machine that makes life such a big kick." [Emphasis original; p. 184]
On first-handedness in seeking a career:
"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." [p. 156]
[Feynman reached the above principle in declining an offer from a prestigious institute. The job was offered to him by reputed scientists, including Einstein. However, Feynman did not consider himself suitable for the job! From then on, he decided to put his own interest above others in all his career decisions, especially in choosing the problems for his research. He went on to undertake the problems that he found interesting, even if they seemed useless to his colleagues. This path led him to ultimately make many key discoveries in physics—including the one for which he later won the Nobel prize.]

Feynman also made some observations on topics that are not of interest to most scientists.

On unquestioned and unchecked authority:
"A teacher who has some idea of how to teach her children is forced by the school system to do it in some other way—or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn't do "the right thing," according to the experts." [p. 310]
On redistribution of wealth:
"[T]he idea of distributing everything evenly is based on a theory that there's only X amount of stuff in the world, that somehow we took it away from the poorer countries in the first place, and therefore we should give it back to them." [p. 257]
[Feynman is right. In the same paragraph, he speculates that some countries are poorer than others because they lack development and machinery. Although he could not identify the deeper cause of poverty—the lack of freedom and ideas—he does come close when he says that machinery, in turn, requires "concentration of capital".]

Since Feynman was a physicist, and not a philosopher, I find it remarkable that he held such unconventional and superb ideas. What kept me flipping the pages of the book were examples of how Feynman, whom I had already known as a brilliant physicist, first-handedly acquired and applied rational principles in his life. That, and the fact that the book is full of hilarious anecdotes that brought me loads of chuckles.

I hope that the quotes have encouraged you to gift yourself a Feynman book this Christmas. I certainly plan to read more from the man.

Update [Jul. 18, 16:50 UTC]: Slightly edited for clarity.

*The page number after each quote refers to the Bantam edition (paperback) published in February 1986.


  1. I enjoyed reading these Feynman quotes. I read a great essay about him in The Objective Standard. He was a fascinating man.

  2. I read this book a few years ago. One of the stories in it that you don't mention here, but which made a real impression on me, was his attempt to learn to speak Japanese. He learned some of the language, but quit the subject when he realized it's structural non-objectivity. The example in the book was, if you're asking someone if they want to see your garden, you have to say it's an ugly, poor garden, but if you want to see someone else's garden, you have to say it's gorgeous. So Feynman asked, "What about equations?" and he received the answer that this rule applies to equations as well. Feynman said, "But it's the same equation! How can it be awful when you write it, and amazing when the other guy writes it?" He was told that it didn't matter. So he basically said this was BS and gave up on learning Japanese.