Excerpts From Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman And My Thoughts About Them

SPOILER ALERT: Some of my favourite excerpts from the book

Date: Jan 19, 2019

P.S: I throughly enjoyed reading the cult classic Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman. For my review of the book, please check this post. This post is going to be quite long. I usually highlight my favourite lines/paragraphs in the books I read. For the first time, I'm going to list them in a public post and share my thoughts my about some of them. This is not meant to be preachy or a post on life lessons. I apologize in advance, if it turns out to be the case! I just need an easy way of accessing these excerpts whenever I feel like re-reading them :)

#1: Own up to your mistakes

It would have been a fantastic and vital discovery if I had been a good biologist. But I wasn't a good biologist. We had a good idea, a good experiment, the right equipment, but I screwed it up: I gave her infected ribosomes--the grossest possible error that you could make in an experiment like that..... We were there at the right place, we were doing the right things, but I was doing things as an amateur--stupid and sloppy.

At this point in the story, Feynman is interested in biology and working with ribosomes. If it doesn't ring any bells, the chapter is called "A Map of the Cat?". Admitting your mistake on paper should be an easy thing to do. However, in the real world, it's not that easy. I can attest from personal experience that swallowing your pride and admitting you are wrong is really hard. But it's definitely one of the most enriching experiences I've had in my life.

#2: Reminds me of my early M.Sc days :)

So I prepared the talk, and when the day came, I went in and did something that young men who have had no experience in giving talks often do—I put too many equations up on the blackboard. You see, a young fella doesn’t know how to say, “Of course, that varies inversely, and this goes this way…” because everybody listening already knows; they can see it. But he doesn’t know. He can only make it come out by actually doing the algebra—and therefore the reams of equations.

This is so true! My first talk in Alberta was such a disaster! I had given a few tech talks in my undergrad before. Since the bar was so low in Trichy, I thought I was doing great. But it was the exact opposite in Alberta. They wanted to understand my project and were at the seminars primarily because of a scientific curiosity. It's also daunting when some of the great minds on campus are coming to see your talk. I did get better at giving talks later on. There is still a lot of scope for improvement, but the early memories which weren't so pleasant back then bring a smile to my face now :)

#3: Question everything, truly understand the subject, don't fall for fancy titles and reputation

But then a miracle occurred, as it has occurred again and again in my life, and it’s very lucky for me: the moment I start to think about the physics, and have to concentrate on what I’m explaining, nothing else occupies my mind—I’m completely immune to being nervous.

I've lost count of the number of times I've pretended to understand something just to appear smart. Sometimes I've accepted ideas in a paper just because they were written by a reputed professor or a student from a world-class university. Thanks to my lucky stars, I've had the pleasure of working with some great scientists at the University of Alberta and Kindred. Time and time again, they taught me this valuable lesson - "You're a researcher. That means you need to ask the hard questions and report the results dutifully. You should not accept results just because some big wig says so. If you aren't completely convinced that the idea, approach and methodology is right, that work is unacceptable." That lesson right there is essential to being a good researcher. Now what does that have to do with excerpt #3? Well, unless you are convinced about your work, it's impossible to think just about the research and then concentrate on what you are explaining. You must have a lot of nerve to disagree with legends in a field and openly speak up. If you aren't convinced that you are absolutely right, the choice to disagree doesn't even exist. Interestingly, Feynman says that he'd never make the mistake of reading experts opinions when he recollects the story about finding the right laws of beta decay.

#4 & #5: Learn to say no. You do not have to live up to someone else's expectation

You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it's impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!" 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.

This is one of those cliched life lessons that's been said time and time again to all of us. Great to see that someone actually internalized this :) Feynman's letter to refuse a terrific offer from Chicago is downright hilarious!

About a month later I was at a meeting, and Leona Marshall came over and said, "It's funny you didn't accept our offer at Chicago. We were so disappointed, and we couldn't understand how you could turn down such a terrific offer."

"It was easy," I said, "because I never let them tell me what the offer was." A week later I got a letter from her. I opened it, and the first sentence said, "The salary they were offering was--," a tremendous amount of money, three or four times what I was making. Staggering! Her letter continued, "I told you the salary before you could read any further. Maybe now you want to reconsider, because they've told me the position is still open, and we'd very much like to have you."

So I wrote them back a letter that said, "After reading the salary, I've decided that I must refuse. The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I've always wanted to do -- get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things.. . With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I'd worry about her, what she's doing; I'd get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn't be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess! What I've always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I've decided that I can't accept your offer."

#6: Medicine, law, business, engineering, these are noble pursuits and necessary to sustain life. But poetry, beauty, romance, love, these are what we stay alive for

I understood at last what art is really for, at least in certain respects. It gives somebody, individually, pleasure. You can make something that somebody likes so much that they’re depressed, or they’re happy, on account of that damn thing you made! In science, it’s sort of general and large: You don’t know the individuals who have appreciated it directly....

I understood that to sell a drawing is not to make money, but to be sure that it’s in the home of someone who really wants it; someone who would feel bad if they didn’t have it. This was interesting.

Alright, I couldn't resist quoting Robin Williams from dead poets society. But it's still true! I'm an engineer myself. There's a lot of beauty to science. But it's a different kind of beauty. It evokes different kind of passion. But art, music, etc., have the potential to stir up an entirely different set of powerful emotions :)

#7: Ignorance is fixable. But pompous dickery is just terrible!

There were a lot of fools at that conference—pompous fools—and pompous fools drive me up the wall. 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! An ordinary fool isn’t a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible!

Feynman can't stand pretentious idiots either! Yay! :)

#8: MUST READ: Feynman's take on Scientific Integrity

It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty—a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated. Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition. In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

We’ve learned from experience that the truth will 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. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

So I have just one wish for you—the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

#9: Adventures require effort and patience :)

I had a way of having adventures which is hard to explain: it’s like fishing, where you put a line out and then you have to have patience. When I would tell someone about some of my adventures, they might say, “Oh, come on—let’s do that!” So we would go to a bar to see if something will happen, and they would lose patience after twenty minutes or so. You have to spend a couple of days before something happens, on average. I spent a lot of time talking to show girls. One would introduce me to another, and after a while, something interesting would often happen.