“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” by Richard Feynman (1985, Norton)
“What Do You Care What Other People Think?” by Richard Feynman (1988, Norton)
For those unfamiliar with these books, I’m about to offer not just capsule reviews but strong recommendations for two autobiographies of a professional physicist. Hear me out.
Richard Feynman was one of the most influential scientists of the 20th century, winning the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965. His lecture series on physics, written in the early 1960s, continues to be taught today. Little of that is discussed in these books.
Instead, Feynman uses the first book to tell the story of his life through anecdotes. He discusses his early childhood, fixing local radios for money. He writes about his college days, including the anecdote which spawned the title of the book where, in an effort to look sophisticated at a introductory meal and uncertain as to which was proper to include in hot tea, lemon or cream, he requested both (a recipe for curdled milk guaranteed to render any liquid undrinkable). He talks about learning to paint. He talks about learning to play steel drum.
What does this have to do with physics? Only a little… but it has everything to do with his life. For example, when he talks about working as a junior member of the Manhattan Project, he focuses on his initial boredom that led to his learning how to pick locks and crack safes. The result is an interesting personal anecdote and behind-the-scenes information about working at the Manhattan Project.
The entire book is like that, because Feynman had an interesting life. The one caution is that the negatives in his life are ignored or glossed over, because autobiographies tend to either focus on or ignore such things.
The second book, written only three years after the first, appears to fill in some of the gaps from the first book, but it quickly becomes obvious that he left most of the best stories in the pages of “Surely You’re Joking.” Then the second half of the book comes along, and the reader is treated to the real reason for the writings.
What Do You Care, while incorporating some of his personal philosophy, is primarily a book detailing his recruitment onto the team investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger explosion, his insertion into the mechanics crew, and the subsequent revelation of the O-ring problem.
Feynman was the person who discovered it and, as part of the investigative committee, the reader is shown not only what caused the problem but the issues with bureaucracy and governmental committees. Feynman had developed a smooth writing style because of the first book, and his analysis of the shuttle disaster is easily worth the price for anyone interested in one of the key moments of the Reagan Presidency.