Notes & Quotes: Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! by Richard Feynman & Ralph Leighton

The following are my favorite quotes from Richard Feynman and Ralph Leighton's "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!": Adventures of a Curious Character.
  1. When a person has been negative to you, and then you do something [nice] like that, they’re usually a hundred percent the other way, kind of to compensate.
  2. Once I get on a puzzle, I can’t get off. If my mother’s friend had said, “Never mind, it’s too much work,” I’d have blown my top, because I want to beat this damn thing, as long as I’ve gone this far. I can’t just leave it after I’ve found out so much about it. I have to keep going to find out ultimately what is the matter with it in the end.
  3. “What a contrast—the person sitting at the table gets this nice cake on a doilied plate, while the pantry man back there with the stubby thumbs is saying, ‘Damn deez doilies!’” So that was the difference between the real world and what it looked like.
  4. I tried to explain—it was my own aunt—that there was no reason not to do that, but you can’t say that to anybody who’s smart, who runs a hotel! I learned there that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world.
  5. It was not so easy to recognize it as fake Italian. Once, when I was at Princeton, as I was going into the parking lot at Palmer Laboratory on my bicycle, somebody got in the way. My habit was always the same: I gesture to the guy, “oREzze caBONca MIche!”, slapping the back of one hand against the other. And way up on the other side of a long area of grass, there’s an Italian gardner putting in some plants. He stops, waves, and shouts happily, “REzza ma LIa!” I call back, “RONte BALta!”, returning the greeting. He didn’t know I didn’t know, and I didn’t know what he said, and he didn’t know what I said. But it was OK! It was great! It works! After all, when they hear the intonation, they recognize it immediately as Italian—maybe it’s Milano instead of Romano, what the hell. But he’s an iTALian! So it’s just great. But you have to have absolute confidence. Keep right on going, and nothing will happen.
  6. “I could do that, but I won’t”—which is just another way of saying that you can’t.
  7. They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.
  8. We were there at the right place, we were doing the right things, but I was doing things as an amateur—stupid and sloppy.
  9. So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else’s, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.
  10. So my boys really came through, and all that had to be done was to tell them what it was. As a result, although it took them nine months to do three problems before, we did nine problems in three months.
  11. I was always dumb in that way. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried about the physics. If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy. If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition. I’ve always lived that way. It’s nice, it’s pleasant—if you can do it. I’m lucky in my life that I can do this.
  12. After the thing went off, there was tremendous excitement at Los Alamos. Everybody had parties, we all ran around. I sat on the end of a jeep and beat drums and so on. But one man, I remember, Bob Wilson, was just sitting there moping.
  13. I said, “What are you moping about?” He said, “It’s a terrible thing that we made.” I said, “But you started it. You got us into it.” You see, what happened to me—what happened to the rest of us—is we started for a good reason, then you’re working very hard to accomplish something and it’s a pleasure, it’s excitement. And you stop thinking, you know; you just stop. Bob Wilson was the only one who was still thinking about it, at that moment.
  14. When I got back to my office I would write the two numbers down on a piece of paper that I kept inside the lock of my filing cabinet. I took the lock apart each time to get the paper—I thought that was a very safe place for them.
  15. You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.
  16. The whole principle is this: The guy wants to be a gentleman. He doesn’t want to be thought of as impolite, crude, or especially a cheapskate. As long as the girl knows the guy’s motives so well, it’s easy to steer him in the direction she wants him to go.
  17. “Don’t you know how to square numbers near 50?” he says. “You square 50—that’s 2500—and subtract 100 times the difference of your number from 50 (in this case it’s 2), so you have 2300. If you want the correction, square the difference and add it on. That makes 2304.” - Hans Bethe
  18. One day I was absent-mindedly playing with one of those measuring tapes that snap back into your hand when you push a button. The tape would always slap over and hit my hand, and it hurt a little bit. “Geez!” I exclaimed. “What a dope I am. I keep playing with this thing, and it hurts me every time.” He [Paul Olum] said, “You don’t hold it right,” and took the damn thing, pulled out the tape, pushed the button, and it came right back. No hurt. “Wow! How do you do that?” I exclaimed. “Figure it out!” For the next two weeks I’m walking all around Princeton, snapping this tape back until my hand is absolutely raw. Finally I can’t take it any longer. “Paul! I give up! How the hell do you hold it so it doesn’t hurt?” “Who says it doesn’t hurt? It hurts me too!” I felt so stupid. He had gotten me to go around and hurt my hand for two weeks!
  19. The harder the problem, the better chance I had.
  20. First, they [Brazilians] weren’t in the same hurry that I was. And second, if it’s better for you, never mind!
  21. I started to walk into the bar, and I suddenly thought to myself, “Wait a minute! It’s the middle of the afternoon. There’s nobody here. There’s no social reason to drink. Why do you have such a terribly strong feeling that you have to have a drink?”—and I got scared. I never drank ever again, since then.
  22. I had succeeded. I got a kick out of succeeding at something I wasn’t supposed to be able to do.
  23. I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant.
  24. I did that once when I was a student at MIT. I got sick and tired of having to decide what kind of dessert I was going to have at the restaurant, so I decided it would always be chocolate ice cream, and never worried about it again—I had the solution to that problem.
  25. I never pay any attention to anything by “experts.” I calculate everything myself.
  26. I like to please the people who come to hear me, and I can’t do it if everybody and his brother wants to hear: I don’t know my audience then.
  27. These people who copy things never have the courage to make up something really different. If you find something that is really new, it’s got to have something different. A real hoax would be to take something like the period of Mars, invent a mythology to go with it, and then draw pictures associated with this mythology with numbers appropriate to Mars—not in an obvious fashion; rather, have tables of multiples of the period with some mysterious “errors,” and so on. The numbers should have to be worked out a little bit. Then people would say, “Geez! This has to do with Mars!” In addition, there should be a number of things in it that are not understandable, and are not exactly like what has been seen before. That would make a good fake.
  28. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way—or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one.
  29. We really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science.
  30. If you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
  31. The idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.
  32. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.
If you liked the quotes, read the book!