Derek Sivers

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! - by Richard Feynman

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! - by Richard Feynman

ISBN: 0393355624
Date read: 2018-08-25
How strongly I recommend it: 6/10
(See my list of 200+ books, for more.)

Go to the Amazon page for details and reviews.

Autobiographical stories. Fun anecdotes. But they give a great glimpse into an approach to life: Doubt, challenge, and most importantly: test everything. Experiment. See what happens in the real-world, not in-theory. Applied not just to science, but how ants find food, talking to strangers in bars, sketching portraits, and playing a shaker in a Brazilian band.

my notes

Invent problems and theorems.

If doing any mathematical thing at all, find some practical example for which it would be useful.
For example: There’s a flagpole, and there’s a rope that comes down from the top. When you hold the rope straight down, it’s a meter longer than the pole, and when you pull the rope out tight, it’s 1.75 meters from the base of the pole. How high is the pole?
When somebody is explaining something that I’m trying to understand: I keep making up examples.
I construct something which fits all the conditions.
They would tell me the general problem they were working on, and would begin to write a bunch of equations. “Wait a minute,” I would say. “Is there a particular example of this general problem?” “Why yes; of course.” “Good. Give me one example.” That was for me: I can’t understand anything in general unless I’m carrying along in my mind a specific example and watching it go.
I have the specific, physical example of what he’s trying to analyze, and I know from instinct and experience the properties of the thing. So when the equation says it should behave so-and-so, and I know that’s the wrong way around, I jump up and say, “Wait! There’s a mistake!”

They didn’t put two and two together. They didn’t even know what they “knew.” They didn’t learn by understanding. They learn by some other way - by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!

Learn what the rest of the world is like. The variety is worthwhile.

When you say, “I could do that, but I won’t” - it’s just another way of saying that you can’t.

No one has ever seen the inside of a brick. Every time you break the brick, you only see a surface. That the brick has an inside is a simple theory which helps us understand things better.

I always get into something and see how far I can go.

I’m “anti-intellectual”.
I always thought the guy who worked in the machine shop and could make things, now he was a real guy!
To me, to be a practical man was always a positive virtue, and to be “cultured” or “intellectual” was not.

I learned to use one method, and I used that one damn tool again and again. So because I was self-taught using that book, I had peculiar methods of doing integrals. The result was, when guys had trouble doing a certain integral, it was because they couldn’t do it with the standard methods they had learned in school. Then I come along and try differentiating under the integral sign, and often it worked. So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.

You don’t have to be responsible for the world that you’re in.
I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result. It’s made me a very happy man ever since.

I have to have something so that when I don’t have any ideas and I’m not getting anywhere I can say to myself, “At least I’m living; at least I’m doing something; I’m making some contribution” - it’s just psychological.

Don't sit in a lovely house by the woods with no obligations. Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge. You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

Students remind me of a problem by asking questions.
It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.

I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing - it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with.
I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.
When I felt I was burned out and will never accomplish anything, I decided I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.
It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was.

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 decided on something, then I decided then never to decide again. Nothing - absolutely nothing - would ever change my mind again.
It’s much easier to just plain decide.
I got sick and tired of having to decide what kind of dessert I was going to have at the restaurant, so I decided it would always be chocolate ice cream, and never worried about it again - I had the solution to that problem.

“I can’t understand these things. It’s all so complicated.” “No,” she said, “what you mean is not that you can’t understand it, but that you didn’t invent it. You didn’t figure it out your own way, from hearing the clue. What you should do is imagine you’re a student again, and take this paper upstairs, read every line of it, and check the equations. Then you’ll understand it very easily.” I took her advice, and checked through the whole thing, and found it to be very obvious and simple. I had been afraid to read it, thinking it was too difficult.

I never pay any attention to anything by “experts.” I calculate everything myself.

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.

He said, “You know, you’re never going to draw again.”
I said, “What? That’s ridiculous! Why should I never…”
“Because you’ve had a one-man show, and you’re only an amateur.”
Although I did draw after that, I never worked as hard, with the same energy and intensity, as I did before. I never sold a drawing after that, either.

It isn’t the stuff, but the power to make the stuff, that is important.

This conference was worse than a Rorschach test: There’s a meaningless inkblot, and the others ask you what you think you see, but when you tell them, they start arguing with you!

Scientific integrity, utter honesty: 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.
Bend over backwards to show how you may be wrong.

You must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool.