Mini book review: Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman

Mini book review: Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman


If you don’t know Richard Feynman, you’re in for a treat. He has done a lot of unbelievable shit: He won the Nobel prize in Physics, he worked with Oppenheimer on the Manhattan Project, he lectured alongside Einstein at Princeton and he played a key role in determining the failings that led to the Challenger disaster.

What’s it about

Well, it’s not about Physics.

It’s a selection of anecdotes from Feynman himself, jumping back and forth in time. It doesn’t cover his time in the Challenger investigation but a lot of key events in his life are talked about in detail. The book has a bit of a disjointed format. I wasn’t sure if I’d like the lack of structure at first but I found it refreshing as I made my way through. One chapter might be about the friction between him and his military bosses and the next about his bongo playing adventures in Rio.

The one thing that is consistent is his simple presentation and hilarious tone. Despite understanding and developing incredibly difficult concepts, he had an amazing ability to explain things in a way a child could understand. In fact, he’d point out that not being able to do that means you really don’t understand the thing you’re talking about at all! I remember when I was younger my brother (a big Feynman fan) always asking me to explain what I had learned in school that week. If I couldn’t do it without tripping over, he knew I hadn’t really learned it.

My only real criticism is that some of his chat comes across as dated. His attitude towards women at times is probably a bit controversial at best. He does acknowledge it though, and for the time I think he was probably pretty progressive. Reading it in 2017 though can induce a bit of cringe.

Why should I read it?

If you’re on this blog, you probably develop or are interested in developing software. Anyone who follows the Feynman method is going to improve their dev skills.

He also shows how it’s a great thing to not be afraid of looking like an idiot. Just because everyone else in the room seems to understand something, doesn’t mean they do and also doesn’t mean you should. Likewise, just because everyone else in the room does something a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s the right way to do it.

He didn’t respect authority just for the sake of it and gives numerous examples of how an ego has gotten in the way of many solutions to problems. He talks about his experiences with imposter syndrome and having confidence in your position in life.

Pretty much all of the book (except the bits about women and bongos!) can be applied to software development, especially for the guys and girls writing the code. You’ll also laugh out loud at bits.

My rating


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