"Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!" The Birth of a Classic.

April 07, 2016

"Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!" The Birth of a Classic.

New in stock this week is a superb first edition of one of the most popular scientific memoirs of the 20th century, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman!. It was this volume of humorous short stories, depicting Feynman as an outsider and prankster, that cemented his popularity. But it's a book that almost wasn't written, and the story of its publication is as fascinating as the ones within its covers.

Though a storyteller and myth-maker in his personal life, Feynman was ambivalent about fame - he was even notoriously cranky about the Nobel Prize and its attendant publicity. For a while he toyed with the idea of having a biography written, and even sat for interviews with the MIT historian Charles Weiner, but those attempts fizzled out. Feynman found it difficult to be treated as a historical subject whose memories and intellectual processes were laid bare to other peoples' interpretations.

But one person approached Feynman differently, his drum-playing partner Ralph Leighton, the son of another Caltech physicist. Leighton first began taping their musical sessions, and then recording the stories the older man told him.

"He urged him on, calling him Chief and begging to hear the same stories again and again. Feynman told them... Gradually a manuscript began to take shape. Leighton transcribed the tapes and presented them to Feynman for editing. Feynman had strong views about the structure of each story; Leighton realized that Feynman had developed a routine of improvisational performance in which he knew the order and pacing of every laugh...

They knew they had a remarkable central figure, a scientist who prided himself not on his achievements in science - these remained deep in the background - but on his ability to see through fraud and pretence and to master everyday life. He underscored these qualities with an exaggerated humility; he took the tone of a boy calling the grownups Mr. and Mrs. and asking politely dangerous questions. He was Holden Caufield, a plain old straight shooter trying to figure out why so many other people were phonies...

Feynman chose as a title the odd phrase uttered by Mrs. Eisenhart at his first Princeton tea when he asked for both cream and lemon: "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!" Those words had stayed in his mind for forty years, a reminder of how people used manners and culture to make him feel small, and now he was taking revenge. W. W. Norton and Company bought the manuscript for an advance payment of fifteen hundred dollars, a tiny sum for a trade book. Its staff did not like Feynman's title at all... But Feynman would not budge. Norton released Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! in a small first printing early in 1985. It sold out quickly, and within weeks the publisher had a surprising best-seller." (Gleick, James. Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman, pp. 409-411).

Not everyone was happy with Surely You're Joking. Many women protested its often sexist ideas and language. Friends worried that his portrayal as a joker would damage his scientific reputation, and Murray Gell-Mann was incensed that Feynman claimed to have discovered a scientific law before he had. Others distrusted what they saw as self-aggrandizing myths that clouded Feynman's real legacy. But the book struck a chord, and has been in print for more than thirty years. Significantly, it has encouraged more people to seek out Feynman's other work - texts such as the Lectures on Physics that gave him his reputation as a leading science communicator. Perhaps its greatest legacy, though, is that it has inspired so many people to explore science, not only as a career, but as a framework for understanding the world.