People are normally surprised when and if they learn I graduated in Physics. What I learnt later and what I have been doing ever since is not even remotely related to Physics or even the Sciences in the conventional sense. Who knows where I would have ended up if we had professors even remotely like Richard P. Feynman ? Anyway, that has nothing to do with this book or the review , so lets get going.
The official Feynman website introduces him as a,
“scientist, teacher, raconteur, and musician. He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb, expanded the understanding of quantum electrodynamics, translated Mayan hieroglyphics, and cut to the heart of the Challenger disaster. But beyond all of that, Richard Feynman was a unique and multi-faceted individual”
Those who have read his books or listened to his lectures online would vouch for the fact that he is indeed a raconteur at par with the best of your favorite authors. The fact is proved yet again in this book.
The first part is more of his personal memories – childhood, his first wife Arlene, some his travels, a few letters to his family, some other letters about him that his family received after he passed away and similar anecdotes from his life. I found the first chapter quite fascinating in the way his father answered his questions. You are left with a feeling of ‘no wonder he turned out to be like this.’
Once a friend ridiculed him that his father didn’t teach him anything because he didn’t know the name of a particular bird. While, Feynman knew it was the opposite. This is what his father told him,
“You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you are finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing – that’s what counts. “
Feynman goes on to say,
“I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
I was ready to complete this as a random memoir kind of book when the second part started. This is where he takes us into the shocking labyrinth of the Challenger investigation . His never ending curiosity, ability to get down to the root of a problem by asking the right questions to the right people and his unwavering sense of ethics is very well brought out in this part. I am someone who believes that the solution to any problem almost always would lie with those who are handling things at the ground level. You change the name ‘NASA’ to any other organization where anything has gone wrong, the scenario would be the same.
“management reducing criteria and accepting more and more errors that weren’t designed into the device, while the engineers are screaming from below, “HELP!” and “This is a RED ALERT!”
Feynman, in his own quintessential style, brings out how some critical decisions that may affect the lives of many and millions of tax payer’s money are made based on certain factors , that might even be whimsical and which has no relevance whatsoever to the actual event. The chapter ‘ Afterthoughts’ is particularly interesting. Whether it is a NASA or an ISRO, the way the system works are not too different. The only difference could be someone as unique as Richard P. Feynman and what a difference it made!
Verdict : Was prepared to give this a 3.5 or at the most 4 while reading the first part. Halfway through the second part I knew it had to be nothing less than 5. Do read it for the interesting bits of life of a brilliant mind and the great lessons that a major disaster imparts to us as human beings and cogs of organizations.