Finished Reading! Classic Feynman

25 11 2011

I actually originally borrowed this book some time around 2009 before I was preparing for my finals. It’s the biography of one of my favourite physicists, Richard Feynman who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 for his work, with his colleagues, on Quantum Electrodynamics. I remember long nights in PGP reading this book in my bedroom and staring at the ceiling. I never really made it past the halfway mark and I was done with my finals and it was time to move out of the dorms. I never thought about that until I was walking around in the library one day and I saw that same copy.

Reading it was a way of reliving those memories, and making sense of my current situation. Back then passing an exam was such a worry, these days, it is quite a different kettle of fish. You get to experience, thankfully only secondhand, the spectrum of human suffering from poverty, disease and death. It reminds you for a while that maybe exams aren’t the biggest problem in your life. Yet it replaces that with an even greater existential uneasiness, I’m not saying this book solved all of those problems, but I thought it helped.

Classic Feynman beautifully narrates in first person the epicness of the physicist from his childhood all the way to the time where he worked on the committee to investigate

the Challenger disaster in the late 80s. What I took away was how he was playful and probing with everything he did, be it dissecting radios as a child, subatomic matter as a graduate student or the organisational management and engineering processes of NASA. His curiosity drove him to learn drawing from his artist friend and the bongos while he was on sabbatical in South America.

I read the chapter on Feynman’s meeting and marriage with Arline, his sweetheart while he was working on his PhD. I was once again reading this in my bed after a long and

Feynman in Apple's Think Different Campaign posters

challenging day at the hospital. He relates the story of how he diagnosed his girlfriend with Tuberculosis while all the doctors missed it. He of course, being modest, never did question any of Arline’s physicians because TB was the first differential in the textbook and he assumed (like all of us do) that the intelligent doctors would have considered it and ruled it out. He finds out later that they didn’t and he kicks himself for not speaking up. It reminds me of all my tutors drilling in our heads to question everything we see in the hospital, because our patients deserve that level of thoroughness and sometime we, miserable medical students, might spot an error which no one else might. I like how we are trained to be critical and am extremely happy to not have any of that rote-learning crap shoved down our throats.

Back in the story, Feynman marries Arline despite her diagnosis. In those days when TB was not that well treatable, it might have had as poor a outcome as some kind of advanced cancer. Every weekend, he makes a trip from Los Alamos, where he’s working on making the Atomic Bomb, down to the hospital where Arline is being treated for her TB. He has all sorts of adventures during this period where he learns to crack safes, skirt the military censors while writing letters to his wife, and of course, work on the physics and engineering behind the bomb. Towards the end of that chapter, no surprises, Arline dies. I cried that night.

It’s a colourful mosaic of the life of a brilliant an inspiring physicist and I get some of my values and attitudes from him. Like many of the books I do read cover to cover, I would highly recommend this book. If there is one takeaway, it’s Arline’s advice to Feynman, “What do YOU care what other people think?”.

To get a flavour of his character, I would recommend this interview with him, so you can almost imagine him narrating the book to you as you read it.