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Quirky and Brilliant

Entry 720, on 2008-03-16 at 19:26:54 (Rating 1, Science)

I'm listening to an audio book called "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character" by legendary physicist Richard Feynman. Feynman won the Nobel prize for physics in 1965 and is well known for his contributions to theoretical physics, especially quantum theory. His name will be recognised by anyone who has an interest in this area because of the Feynman diagrams he invented to illustrate the behaviour of subatomic particles.

In this book he talks about some anecdotes from his life, mentioning his most brilliant work and his most miserable failures in the same no-nonsense way. He really is the ultimate geek. He talks about the lab he had when he was young, his fascination with every aspect of the world, and an experiment in "mind reading" he performed while visiting his wife in hospital. But I'm not using the word "geek" in a negative sense here, because I admire his insatiable curiosity and fascination with so many different subjects. In fact they are the same attributes in my own personality that often leads people to label be a geek.

When I first saw the title of the book I assumed it referred to someone's reaction to one of his theories in quantum physics, because serious quantum theories can be difficult to separate from farce. But it turns out it was actually a reaction from a woman serving tea at Princeton where he was asked whether he wanted milk or lemon in his tea and naively replied both!

One of my favourite stories is where he describes his first technical lecture. It turns out that the subject is interesting enough that his supervisor invites Henry Russell (a famous astronomer and winner of numerous scientific medals), John von Neumann (one of the greatest mathematicians of the time), Wolfgang Pauli (winner of the Nobel prize for physics in 1945), and Albert Einstein (maybe the world's greatest theoretical scientists ever, and winner of the Nobel prize for physics in 1921).

Feynman didn't seem to have a lot of consideration for authority or social norms. In his entry at Wikipedia it lists a comment he made in the report produced after investigating the Challenger disaster of 1986. In his appendix to the commission's report he said: "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled." That's so true because the facts have a way of establishing their presence in the end.

I'm only 2 and a half hours into the over 12 hour long audio book so I'm sure there will be many more interesting stories to come but already I really admire his quirky personality and intellectual brilliance!

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