Image of Bookcover "Surely You're Joking,
Mr. Feynman!"

By Richard P. Feynman
(Ghost written by Ralph Leighton; edited by Edward Hutchings)

Copyright © 1985 by Richard P. Feynman and Ralph Leighton

Published by Bantam Books
(by arrangement with W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.)

ISBN 0-553-34668-7

Reviewed by Michael Kisor

This absolutely delightful and funny book chronicles the life of an eccentric Nobel Prize winner: the late Richard Feynman. Feynman did not fit the stereotype of a slide rule toting physicist wearing a white lab coat (complete with a plastic pocket protector and a half dozen pens). Instead, his was a dynamic and alive personality with a sense of adventure and wonder. This book chronicles his mischevious days at MIT and Princeton, his underground life as a safecracker at Los Alamos during the development of the Atomic Bomb, and his forays into painting and music making. This book is a delightful read even if you aren't interested in the world of physics, but if you are, it is an extra special treat.

Here is an excerpt from the book. In this chapter, the development of the atomic bomb is being discussed. Feynman was sent to inspect the plant that would refine the uranium for the first atomic bomb. Upon arrival, Feynman discovered that the army's penchant for secrecy had kept the plant's managers in the dark about nuclear theory -- including such important concepts as critical mass -- information essential to plant safety and to preventing the nuclear disaster waiting to happen in Tennessee during World War II. While a most serious and important visit, this excerpt illustrates how Feynman's approach to life is often very humorous:

So I went through the entire plant. I have a very bad memory, but when I work intensively I have a good short term memory, and so I could remember all kinds of crazy things like building 90-207, vat number so-and-so, and so forth.

I went to my room that night, and went through the whole thing, explained where all the dangers were, and what you would have to do to fix this. It's rather easy. You put cadmium in solutions to absorb the neutrons in the water and you separate the boxes so they are not too dense, according to certain rules.

The next day there was going to be a big meeting. When I arrived, sure enough, the big shots in the company and the technical people that I wanted were there, and the generals and everyone who was interested in this very serious problem. That was good because the plant would have blown up if nobody had paid attention to this problem.

There was a Lieutenant Zumwalt who took care of me. He told me that the colonel said I shouldn't tell them how the neutrons work and all the details because we want to keep things separate, so just tell them what to do to keep it safe.

I said, "In my opinion it is impossible for them to obey a bunch of rules unless they understand how it works. It's my opinion that it's only going to work if I tell them, and Los Alamos cannot accept the responsibility for the safety of the Oak Ridge plant unless they are fully informed as to how it works!"

The lieutenant takes me to the colonel and repeats my remark. The colonel says, "Just five minutes," and then he goes to the window and he stops and thinks. That's what they're very good at -- making decisions. I thought it was very remarkable how a problem of whether or not information as to how the bomb works should be in the Oak Ridge plant had to be decided and could be decided in five minutes. So I have a great deal of respect for these military guys, because I never can decide anything very important in any length of time at all.

In five minutes he said, "All right, Mr. Feynman, go ahead."

I sat down and I told them all about neutrons, how they worked, da da, ta ta ta, there are too many neutrons together, you've got to keep the material apart, cadmium absorbs, and slow neutrons are more effective than fast neutrons, and yak yak -- all of which was elementary stuff at Los Alamos, but they had never heard of any of it, so I appeared to be a tremendous genius to them.

The result was that they decided to set up little groups to make their own calculations to learn how to do it. They started to redesign plants, and the designers of the plants were there, the construction designers, and engineers, and chemical engineers for the new plant that was going to handle the separated material.

They told me to come back in a few months, so I came back when the engineers had finished the design of the plant. Now it was for me to look at the plant.

How do you look at a plant that isn't built yet? I don't know. Lieutenant Zumwalt, who was always coming around with me because I had to have an escort everywhere, takes me into this room where there are these two engineers and a loooooong table covered with a stack of blueprints representing the various floors of the proposed plant.

I took mechanical drawing when I was in school, but I am not good at reading blueprints. So they unroll the stack of blueprints and start to explain it to me, thinking I am a genius. Now, one of the things they had to avoid in the plant was accumulation. They had problems like when there's an evaporator working, which is trying to accumulate the stuff, if the valve gets stuck or something like that and too much stuff accumulates, it'll explode. So they explained to me that this plant is designed so that if any one valve gets stuck nothing will happen. It needs at least two valves everywhere.

Then they explain how it works. The carbon tetrachloride comes in here, the uranium nitrate from here comes in here, it goes up and down, it goes up through the floor, comes up through the pipes, coming up from the second floor, bluuuuurp going through the stack of blueprints, down up-down-up, talking very fast, explaining the very, very complicated chemical plant.

I'm completely dazed. Worse, I don't know what the symbols on the blueprint mean! There is some kind of a thing that at first I think is a window. It's a square with a little cross in the middle, all over the damn place. I think it's a window, but no, it can't be a window, because it isn't always at the edge. I want to ask them what it is.

You must have been in a situation like this when you didn't ask them right away. Right away it would have been OK. But now they've been talking a little bit too long. You hesitated too long. If you ask them now they'll say, "What are you wasting my time all this time for?"

What am I going to do? I get an idea. Maybe it's a valve. I take my finger and I put it down on one of the mysterious little crosses in the middle of one of the blueprints on page three, and I say, "What happens if this valve gets stuck?" -- figuring they're going to say, "That's not a valve, sir, that's a window."

So one looks at the other and says, "Well, if that valve gets stuck --" and he goes up and down on the blueprint, up and down, the other guy goes up and down, back and forth, back and forth, and they both look at each other. They turn around to me and they open their mouths like astonished fish and say, "You're absolutely right, sir."

So they rolled up the blueprints and away they went and we walked out. And Mr. Zumwalt, who had been following me all the way through, said, "You're a genius. I got the idea you were a genius when you went through the plant once and you could tell them about evaporator C-21 in building 90 207 the next morning," he says, "but what you have just done is so fantastic I want to know how, how do you do that?"

I told him you try to find out whether it's a valve or not.

Graphic of a book Return to the Book Reviews home page