Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (subtitled, “Adventures of a Curious Character”) is a humorous book that covers the life experiences of Richard P. Feynman, a famous theoretical physicist from New York.
A series of anecdotes about the life of Feynman, a Nobel Prize winner in his field, are recounted in the text. Some of the stories are sure to make any reader chuckle, smile, and become emotional in some instances. The book discusses how he traded different ideas with Einstein and Bohr – two of the most famed scientists in history – on atomic physics. In addition, the book delves into his experiences with Nick the Greek and the ideas the two traded on gambling. Other subjects discussed include what it felt like to paint a picture of a naked female toreador, what it was like playing the bongo drums in a ballet among individuals whom Feynman hardly knew, and the fun and intrigue that go into cracking safes to discover what’s inside them.
Some of the other more serious anecdotes brought up in the text include stories about his work on the famous Manhattan Project and his in-depth analysis of the Brazilian science education system. He also gives some insight into the untimely death of his first wife who died of tuberculosis. In spite of the fact that Feynman was a renowned physicist who won the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 and developed groundbreaking theories and methods like the Feynman diagrams of subatomic particle behavior, the text does not reflect these achievements. It instead focuses on the more lighthearted and interesting side of life that most people wouldn’t expect to hear from a scientist. In a way, the text humanizes what many readers would consider to be an intellect who was far removed form their “normal” intelligence level.
The 352-page book was published in 1985 by W.W. Norton & Company. The book was compiled and edited by Ralph Leighton, Edward Hutchings, and Albert R. Hibbs and was on the New York Times Bestseller list following its release. The stories in the book were edited from recorded conversations that Feynman had with Ralph Leighton, a close friend and band partner. The success of the book, which was unexpected at the time, led to the publication of a sequel titled What Do You Care What Other People Think?
The book’s title comes from something a woman asked Feynman when he first arrived at Princeton University. She asked whether he wanted lemon or cream in his tea, and he responded “both.” That is when she said, “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”