Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The Last Renaissance Man



“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman,” by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton, Read by Raymond Todd, Blackstone Audio, 1997

“What Do You Care What Other People Think?”, by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton, Read by Dan Cashman, Books on Tape, Inc., 2001

I made what might be considered a mistake when I read these two Feynman collections in reading the later written one first and the earlier one second. How the order got futzed, I can’t say, yet it provided a personality contrast that might have seemed less obvious had chronology won the day. As the first book probably wasn’t written with the second collection envisioned for later, this alteration and shift feels then more natural, more holistic, then any planned pseudo-bildungsroman aspect.

Between the two books there is a non-insignificant tonal difference. What Do You Care is more earnest, probably based on its later life aspects, a mellowing as one ages, while Surely You’re Joking is a bit more combative in places such as where the essays gripe about the various bureaucracies he fought at Los Alamos, battling the letter censors, how the workers cut a hole in the fence because they didn’t want to check in at the gate, how women weren’t supposed to be in the men’s dorms, etc. Surely You’re Joking has a constant comic refrain of Feynman against the world which makes a livelier telling (and is mirrored in the second book’s later pieces dealing with Washington bureaucracy surrounding the Challenger space shuttle investigation), though at times you wish you’d get more of the heartfelt aspects of the later book. To be sure, though, such oppositional attitudes provides us with many hilarious run-ins with authority, like when Feynman was on the science textbook choosing committee for California public schools, or his revulsion at the pomp and ceremony and royalty involved in the Nobel Prize parties.

The first essay in What Do You Care starts off by disputing one of my pet peeve misconceptions people have about scientists. An artist friend of the author’s tells him that he, the artist, can look at a flower and see beauty, whereas Feynman, as a scientist can only look at the flower and see the mechanistic cellular qualities of it, thus soulless Dullsville. That’s always bugged me, as scientists listen to music and find people beautiful and have all the same sensory experiences we do, yet popular belief denies them this humanity. That they can then look, as the author states, deeper than one centimeter doesn’t a.) make the first centimeter not beautiful to them, and b.) prevent them from seeing beauty on a multitude of levels. Just because Feynman’s artist friend doesn’t find cellular development beautiful, doesn’t find evolution beautiful, doesn’t find the questions each aspect brings to us beautiful, just because people of that type don’t see this beauty, doesn’t mean they don’t have what others have.

Some of these essays herein are relatively minor barely touching on physics, and some of them are tangentially related such as his giving an address protested by a feminist group handing out pamphlets titled “Feynman Sexist Pig!” due to a misunderstanding of two stories told in a lecture series. In the essay “I Just Shook His Hand, Can You Believe It?” Feynman tells of not being satisfied being a typical tourist to Japan, instead choosing to stay at a small family run place, traditional style without a Western toilet. In the course of events, Feynman is asked by a monk to make a speech at a religious ceremony, even though he does not speak Japanese and the monk does not understand English. The barely comprehensible speech is a hit and catapults Feynman to temporary local celebrity.

What Do You Care is wisely constructed by the inclusion in the first half of letters by or to or about Feynman in that they read as an interesting side note providing further illumination. Had they been tacked on at the end, they’d instead seem like a little filler, some padding stuffed in at the end to jack up the page count. In the middle of the first half, they sit nicely as just another sampler on the platter.

This is in part wise because the second half of the book is made up of several shorter essays as part of an essentially longer piece, “Mr. Feynman Goes to Washington,” detailing the author’s experience in investigating the Challenger shuttle explosion. There are wheels within wheels, cheap bureaucracy business (such as when the government reimburses the participants $75.00 per day for expenses, then puts them up in an $80.00 a night hotel), and an apparent fear of specific fingerpointing lest someone lose a job. Feynman is disgusted with all of this nickel and diming, carping careerism, and spineless non-answering that he frequently is at loggerheads with the investigation’s chair and finds himself in one ludicrous situation after another.

The second half multi-part essay ends with the highly debated, at-times-controversial Appendix F Feynman insisted on inclusion in the government report or he’d have refused his signature on it. This is a bit of dry reading, and one hears some of the echoes of previous parts of the story, though in less jocular format. While dry, it is still highly accessible and clearly written, penetrating and insightful.

This is followed by an epilogue that closes with a kind of sermon on the value of science to society in not only its practical utility but also in its aesthetics, in its celebration of doubt and spirit of inquiry. As an interested reader who finds more interesting just these aspects rather than how you can use science as a tool to get a job done, I was in full accord. It is salutary reading in our increasingly superstitious and anti-intellectual times, important both for scientists and laymen alike.

The opening essay in first collection, "Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman", “He Fixes Radios By Thinking?” reminded me of how technologically young we were back at the beginning of the twentieth century. Our child hero, Richard, makes crystal radios and listens in on far flung stations like Waco, Texas all the way to his home in Far Rockaway, New York. The kind of non-directed semi-goalless tinkering kids no longer do these days taking so much of technology for granted while leading lives of ever structured and scheduled extracurriculars.

One obvious thing we determine in these mostly chronological essays is that jokerdom starts at a very young age. So we learn of gags and pranks Feynman played as a child, almost always very more clever than most, but still with a kind of pratfall element of humor. Likewise his fake Italian curses he shouts at people who cut him off while he’s on his bicycle, thought out for its metrical rhythms and vowel-based endings and little else, and his fake Italian poem filled with gesticulation delivered to a group of children who howl and roll in the aisles.

This last bit of fakery then provides us with a long awaited adult punch line at a party. A guest, irked at Feynman’s luck at almost always being right or at solving complex puzzles, convinces another guest who speaks Chinese to greet Feynman in Chinese when he arrives at the party. Upon hearing her greeting, Feynman immediately replies in a sing-song delivery of faux speech, only to be delighted when the woman exclaims “My God, I knew this would happen. I speak Mandarin and he speaks Cantonese.”

One of the best pieces, most amusing, is the history of Feynman learning to draw which leads to the most unlikely art career just about in all of history. With no formal training and beginning only in middle age, Feynman goes on to sell works, have shows, and get commissions. Through this we learn of the professor’s love of topless dancing clubs, and he at one point is commissioned to draw a picture for a “massage parlor.” Hilarious misunderstandings of course ensue.

But the overwhelming picture that emerges in these small self-portraits of a brilliant individual is of an energetic and restless mind, a bemused spectator of life unafraid to get up and make things happen, so resistant to rest on his laurels and his fame (he did work on the Manhattan Project, the Challenger Rogers Commission, and win a Nobel Prize after all) that he sees no discrepancy in a theoretical physicist joining a samba band in Brazil or playing the bongos for an amateur theatrical. Much like Socrates, who claims to be smart only because he knows how dumb he really is, Feynman maintains his reputation for genius at times because he allows people to think he’s smarter than he is and because he’s forever shocking them with some new interest and some newly acquired area of expertise.

To read Feynman’s essays is to fully understand just what esteemed figures of the past, the Leonardos and Michealangelo, were truly like, to see how ever moving minds shape themselves, how geniuses to a great degree create themselves. To read Feynman on strippers, crankshafts, space travel, atomic science, safe-cracking, Mayan hieroglyphics, Vegas card-counting, painting, modern dance, music is to read one of the late twentieth century’s very last Renaissance Men. The world now, as ever, is in need of just such people.

Cashman acts the part of Feynman beautifully, by which I mean, he reads as though he were the person experiencing the situation, putting a little stammer into his voice or aggrieved bemusement. Todd reads with as much brio as Cashman, though he acts less the part of Feynman and seems to rush on from title to text so the segue from one essay to another blurs a little at times. Was that a title or just a random snippet of dialogue thrown out? This effect is increased by the essays sometimes being very sequential, as at Los Alamos, though it’s a small complaint.

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