I recently finished reading this ‘self-portrait’ of Feynman. It was one of the first biography book that I have ever read and it was amazing. The book is the result of conversations that Feynman had with his friend Ralph Leighton which were first taped and later made into this book.
The whole book is broadly divided into five parts each dealing with a different part of Feynman’s life. The five parts deal with his childhood, his MIT years, his bomb making years, his years at Cornell, Caltech and Brazil and then the last section broadly based on his experience with people from other fields(non-physics). Each chapter in the book gives an account of a small incident in his life. The book on the whole gives an interesting insight into one of the world’s finest theoretical physicists’ minds. It is curiosity that drives Feynman along all his adventures. The book has chapters on each of Feynman’s faces including the artist, the practical joker, the musician and the safecracker in him.
It is very humourous in an anecdotal way, probably retaining Feynman’s humor from his spoken tapes. The stories are full of wit, so much so, that it wouldn’t feel like reading a biography at all, it would be like reading some funniest short stories collection. The way Feynman narrates these stories makes them much more natural and that is what sometimes makes them great. Although a few chapters in the beginning did seem shoddy, it soon become better, with most of my favorite parts coming in the second half of the book. Some of my favorite chapters include Safecracker meets Safecracker and The Dignified Professor.
Although the back of the book advertises this as a self-portrait, it is much more than that. This book is an analysis of the working of a scientific mind, albeit an informal one at that. The chapters showing this aspect of the book most profoundly include Always Trying to Escape, Safecracker meets Safecracker, The Dignified Professor, Altered States and Cargo Cult Science. This book is one to be read not to read about Feynman –although that is not too bad an idea either– but mainly to understand about how a scientist thinks, how curiosity propels them to learning about new things all the time and their perseverance. This aspect of the book is what makes it so much different from all other books in the market. No other book gives this outlook in such a captivating and understandable way.
It is a book for any inquisitive person, anyone who is interested in knowing how the a great scientist looks at the world around him, I would also recommend this to anyone who wants to take up some lightweight biography, or to anyone who would like to know more about Feynman. You could also read it just for the heck of it, its a great book!
[NOTE: This was written sometime in January but I liked the book enough that I want this to be present on my blog.]