Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman
Among other things, Richard Feynman is known for having won the Nobel Prize in Physics, as well as for his work on the Manhattan project. What people tend not to realise about Richard Feynman is that he was also a terrible practical joker and had a real knack for telling an anecdote. While he has other autobiographical texts, Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman is a selection of stories, characterised as “Adventures of a curious character.”
Indeed, if there’s one thing to take from Feynman at all it’s that he encourages a degree of honest and forthright intellectual curiosity that’s rare in the adult world. His is a world in which any unexplained or unknown event must be probed and understood. His methods are often incredibly direct, his thoughts straightforward, and his attitude upbeat.
If ever you’ve felt your curiosity about the world around you begin to ebb, then Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman could be just what you need to pull it back together.
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Today, Neal Stephenson is known for his ability to crack out great tomes like Cryptonomicon and Anathem (each of which has won rakes of awards). Before all of that though, in 1992, Stephenson produced the cyberpunk linguo-thriller Snow Crash. Set in a not-too-distant future in which the United States has collapsed and corporations effectively operate as countries, Snow Crash tells the story of Hiro Protagonist, a mercenary pizza delivery man who works for a business that’s somewhere between Dominos and the mafia.
What makes Snow Crash so much fun is its combination of a truly original depiction of the future, a strange relevance to modern politics, and its ability to integrate language and ideas of linguistic virality into both its plot and setting. It runs a little off the rails sometimes, but Stephenson keeps it under control enough to ensure that Snow Crash is always coherent and moving at a solid clip.
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"What Do You Care What Other People Think?"
If you’d had enough of Richard Feynman with Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman, then it’s my sad responsibility to tell you that you and Larry Page probably couldn’t be more different. For this follow-up book, Feynman’s focus drifts as much as in the first, but it also includes a spectacular examination of the Challenger space shuttle disaster, using the same simple methodology that makes Feynman’s approach to problem solving so appealing.
Fair warning though, where Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman tends to steer clear of some of the more serious periods of Feynman’s life, there’s a fair bit of this second book dedicated to the time around the death of his first wife. It’s touching and often heartwarming, but lends the book a more sombre air than its predecessor.
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While the name Tesla now is increasingly associated with electric cars, there was a time when Tesla was synonymous with some of the most exciting inventions of a golden age of scientific advanvement. Running alongside (and often in competition with) Thomas Edison, Nikola Tesla is often considered among the most spectacular minds of the 19th and early 20th centuries. While many know of Nikola Tesla by name or reputation, relatively few people know that the great man wrote a book about his own life. Tesla’s autobiography is a little scattershot, but offers invaluable insight into the mind of the man himself, as well as providing a lot of detail on his life before he became the great man people typically think of.
For all its significance, My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla is actually a relatively short book, and one that leaves readers hungry for more about information about the life of the great inventor. If you end up totally falling in love with it, you might also be interested in Wizard: The Life and Times of Nikola Tesla.
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The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
Now we return to Richard Feynman, though this time with a less autobiographical book. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a selection of Feynman’s shorter works, some of which will be broadly familiar if you’ve read either of the two Feynman books listed above. By contrast with those books, however, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out has less of a focus on the man himself, and more of a broad look at science, knowledge, and how to approach learning.
The collection includes, “What is Science?” which is a transcript of a lecture given to teachers focusing on the practicalities of science, and “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” a lecture on the future of miniaturisation. In the latter, he discusses the practicalities of performing physical operations at the scale of angstroms. Some of it may feel a little dated, but the approach remains as interesting as ever. Stand-out descriptions include:
“I have estimated how many letters there are in the Encyclopaedia, and I have assumed that each of my 24 million books is as big as an Encyclopaedia volume, and have calculated, then, how many bits of information there are (10^15). For each bit I allow 100 atoms. And it turns out that all of the information that man has carefully accumulated in all the books in the world can be written in this form in a cube of material one two-hundredths of an inch wide–which is the barest piece of dust that can be made out by the human eye. So there is plenty of room at the bottom! Don’t tell me about microfilm!”
By now, some of Feynman’s observations (particularly on the subject of women in science) are hopelessly dated, but the appeal of his approach remains.
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If the three other books hadn’t been enough to sway you, the fourth should tell you that Larry Page has a pretty high opinion of Richard Feynman. By now, there’s relatively little left to say about the man himself, but this book has a different aim than the other books mentioned so far. Where the others are loose collections of ideas and anecdotes, QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter is an effort to communicate the vagaries of quantum theory to the non-physicists.
Here, Feynman outlines the theory behind quantum electrodynamics in the same no-nonsense style as in so many of his other works. If you’ve been looking for something to give you an adequate grounding in quantum theory, then there are few better places to start.
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