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Reviews: Feynman and Vonnegut

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Richard Feynman and Kurt Vonnegut are two of my heroes and those are damn hard to find these days. Both are fascinating, smart and unique.

Feynman was a writer who managed to make this simple-minded reader really excited to read about science. I read with relish Feynman’s two autobiographical books, Surely You’re Joking, Dr. Feynman and What Do You Care What People Think, when they came out.

The latter contained Feynman’s explanation of how he discovered, and announced to the world, why the Challenger space shuttle blew up. He was the sole scientist on a panel ordered to investigate the accident and he took that role seriously. I actually stayed up all night reading his account, much to the shock of my parents, who thought I was reading a mystery, not something resembling a scientific treatise.

His Challenger report is included, which ends with this comment:

NASA owes it to the citizens from which it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources. For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

Sadly, Feynman died in 1988, just as non-scientists around the world were learning, via Surely You’re Joking, about what a great guy he was. His new book is a collection of essays, speeches and interviews by Feynman. The topics range from Galileo to Los Alamos to evolution. Feynman is a brilliant man and yet so human, a man who spent some of his time making the bomb at Los Alamos learning how to crack safes and get past censors so he could correspond by mail with his ailing wife. In these books he thinks out loud about his role in making the bomb, about life and death and other matters.

A sample:

I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree, I think. And he says, ‘You see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you, as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing.

And I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too,I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is; but I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time I see much more about the flower that he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty….

Also, the processes, the fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting – it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which shows that a scientific knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don’t understand how it can subtract.

Feynman taught me that science can be interesting and that scientists do indeed think about the implications of their work.

Meanwhile, Kurt Vonnegut showed me that life is indeed weird and absurd and hilarious, and that there is nothing wrong with realizing that and pointing it out to others. His writing has gone down in quality in recent years, but some of his early works remain classics.

This new book began as a collection of 90-second interludes broadcast on WNYC public radio. In them, he uses the literary device of pretending he is going into the afterlife and coming back with interviews.

He reports on meeting with John Brown (still mad about that execution thing), James Earl Ray (who says he never would have shot Martin Luther King if he knew it would turn King into a martyr), and others. At one point he attempts to interview William Shakespeare, trying to get answers to centuries-old questions. But Shakespeare lets loose with remarks that leave Vonnegut tongue-tied.

Vonnegut calls his own work controlled near-death experiences, which are done with the help of his pal, Dr. Jack Kevorkian. The interviews must end, though, when Kevorkian is jailed for his real, successful attempts at helping people die.

But overall the book leaves a flat taste in this reader’s mouth. Some jokes just aren’t funny, most of the interviews are, at most, two pages and the entire book is about 78 pages. The reader is left wanting more. But if this all Vonnegut can give at this point, then it’s still better than nothing.

This review was originally printed at Mindjack: The Beat of Digital Culture

Afterthought: I saw Vonnegut on Jon Stewart’s Daily Show Tuesday night and he was as off-beat and wacky as ever.
Edited: PC

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About Scott Butki

Scott Butki was a newspaper reporter for more than 10 years before making a career change into education... then into special education. He has been doing special education work for about five years He lives in Austin. He reads at least 50 books a year and has about 15 author interviews each year and, yes, unlike tv hosts he actually reads each one. He is an in-house media critic, a recovering Tetris addict and a proud uncle. He has written articles on practically all topics from zoos to apples and almost everything in between.
  • http://www.scoopstories.typepad.com Scott Butki

    The W. Post has a great review of a re-release of Feynman’s books. Details here.