Mar 11, 2021
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is a look inside the head of a relentless first-principles thinker and Nobel Prize winning physicist, Richard Feynman. Not quite a biography, the book is a collection of short stories from Feynman's life.
What does first-principles thinking mean? The first story Feynman tells is a great example. As a young boy, Richard started tinkering with radios, and eventually was paid to fix them around town. Most shops repaired radios by following instructions in the manual.
Richard, on the other hand, learned the fundamentals of electronics and how radio circuits worked. He understood the difference between AC and DC currents. He would bring a voltmeter with and check the voltages coming through the wires and knew where resistors were needed. With this knowledge, he was often able repair radios that even shops couldn't fix.
The following stories continue to build on this theme. After becoming a professor, Feynman inevitably met many students who learned physics by memorizing terms and techniques without understanding real world applications of the concepts. For example, a candidate he interviewed knew the definition of diamagnetism, but couldn’t name an example of a diamagnetic material (e.g. wood).
I don't know what's the matter with people: they don't learn by understanding, they learn by some other way—by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!
This book helped me find areas of knowledge that are fragile in my life, and encouraged me to build on the foundations. Innovation can only come from understanding how things truly work.