Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character, as told to Ralph Leighton.

New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985.

First edition, first printing, and a fine copy in a bright dust jacket, signed by Feynman and from the library of a second Nobel Prize winner, Edwin P. McMillan. Signed copies of this first printing are rare: Feynman was notorious for refusing to sign copies of his book, reportedly telling his editor “I’m not going to go on TV and I’m not going to sign any books!” (interview with Lawrence Grobel, 28 February, 1986); and although the book eventually sold more than 500,000 copies, its success was unexpected and the initial print run was a lowly 3000 copies (Grobel, Los Angeles Times review, 20 April 1986). Widely regarded as the most brilliant, influential, and iconoclastic figure in theoretical physics in the post-World War II era, Feynman shared the Nobel Prize in Physics 1965 with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger “for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics, with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles.” Edited from taped conversations Feynman had with his close friend and drumming partner Ralph Leighton, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! is a collection of humorous and poignant reminiscences in which Feynman describes his childhood and developing interest in science, his college education and work on the Manhattan Project, and his career at Cornell and Caltech. Among the memorable episodes are Feynman’s description of an anatomical chart as a ‘map of the cat’, his safe cracking escapades at Los Alamos, and his exasperated reaction to winning the Nobel Prize. The section ‘Monster Minds’ describes his slightly nervous presentation of his graduate work on the Wheeler–Feynman absorber theory in front of Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, John von Neumann and other major figures of the time. The New York Times review of this volume (January 27, 1985) described Feynman as “a storyteller in the tradition of Mark Twain” who “proves once again that it is possible to laugh out loud and scratch your head at the same.” Its title derives from an incident at a Dean’s tea at Princeton University: when asked if he wanted cream or lemon in his tea, Feynman absentmindedly requested both. Only one copy of the first printing signed by Feynman has appeared at auction (Sotheby’s, New York, 12 December 2017, lot 51, $43,750).

Provenance: Boldly signed ‘Richard Feynman’ (1918-88) on front free end-paper; Edwin M. McMillan (1907-91), winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1951 for the first artificially-created transuranic element, with his name and address in pencil at head of front free end-paper. Feynman and McMillan will have known each other at least since 1942, from when both were working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project.

“For several years [Feynman] had played drums regularly with a young friend, Ralph Leighton (b. 1949), the son of another Caltech physicist. Leighton had begun taping their sessions, and then he began taping the stories Feynman would tell. He urged him on, calling him Chief and begging to hear the same stories again and again. Feynman told them: how he became known in Far Rockaway as the boy who fixed radios by thinking; how he asked a Princeton librarian for the map of the cat; how his father taught him to see through the tricks of circus mind readers; how he outwitted painters, mathematicians, philosophers, and psychiatrists. Or he would just ramble while Leighton listened … Gradually a manuscript began to take shape. Leighton transcribed the tapes and presented them to Feynman for editing. Feynman had strong views about the structure of each story; Leighton realized that Feynman had developed a routine of improvisational performance in which he knew the order and pacing of every laugh. They consciously worked on the key themes …

“They knew they had a remarkable central figure, a scientist who prided himself not on his achievements in science — these remained deep in the background — but on his ability to see through fraud and pretense and to master everyday life. He underscored these qualities with an exaggerated humility; he took the tone of a boy calling the grownups Mr. and Mrs. and asking politely dangerous questions. He was Holden Caulfield, a plain old straight shooter trying to figure out why so many other people are phonies …

“His favorite sort of triumph in the world of these stories came in the realm of everyday cleverness — as when he arrived at a North Carolina airport, late for a meeting of relativists, and worked out how to get help from a taxi dispatcher: ‘Listen,’ I said to the dispatcher. ‘The main meeting began yesterday, so there were a whole lot of guys going to the meeting who must have come through here yesterday. Let me describe them to you: They would have their heads kind of in the air, and they would be talking to each other, not paying attention to where they were going, saying things to each other like ‘G-mu-nu. G-mu-nu.’ His face lit up. ‘Ah, yes,’ he said. ‘You mean Chapel Hill.’

“Feynman chose as a title the odd phrase uttered by Mrs. Eisenhart at his first Princeton tea when he asked for both cream and lemon: ‘Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!’ Those words had stayed in his mind for forty years, a reminder of how people used manners and culture to make him feel small, and now he was taking revenge. W. W. Norton and Company bought the manuscript for an advance payment of fifteen hundred dollars, a tiny sum for a trade book. Its staff did not like Feynman’s title at all. They proposed I Have to Understand the World or I Got an Idea (‘a nice Brooklyn ring and a little double meaning,’ the editor said). But Feynman would not budge. Norton released Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! in a small first printing early in 1985. It sold out quickly, and within weeks the publisher had a surprising best-seller” (Gleick, Genius, pp. 409-411).

Richard Phillips Feynman was born on 11 May 1918 in the New York borough of Queens to Jewish parents originally from Russia and Poland. As a child, he was heavily influenced both by his father, Melville, who encouraged him to ask questions to challenge orthodox thinking, and his mother, Lucille, from whom he inherited the sense of humour that he maintained throughout his life. From an early age he delighted in repairing radios and demonstrated a talent for engineering. At Far Rockaway High School in Queens, he excelled in mathematics, and won the New York University Math Championship by a large margin in his final year there. He was refused entry to his first choice Columbia University because of the ‘Jewish quota’ and attended instead the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he received a bachelor’s degree in 1939, and was named a Putnam Fellow. He obtained an unprecedented perfect score on the graduate school entrance exams to Princeton University (although he did rather poorly on the history and English portions), where he went to study mathematics under his advisor John Archibald Wheeler (1911-2008). He obtained his PhD in 1942, with a thesis on the ‘path-integral’ formulation of quantum mechanics. During his time at Princeton, he married his first wife, Arline Greenbaum; she died of tuberculosis just a few years later in 1945.

While at Princeton, Feynman was persuaded by the physicist Robert Wilson to participate in the Manhattan Project. At Los Alamos immersed himself in the work on the atomic bomb, was soon made a group leader under Hans Bethe, and was present at the Trinity bomb test in 1945. During his time at Los Alamos, Niels Bohr sought him out for discussions about physics, and he became a close friend of laboratory head Robert Oppenheimer, who unsuccessfully tried to lure him to the University of California in Berkeley after the war. Looking back, Feynman thought his decision to work on the Manhattan Project was justified at the time, but he expressed grave reservations about the continuation of the project after the defeat of Nazi Germany, and suffered bouts of depression after the destruction of Hiroshima.

After the war, Feynman declined an offer from the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, despite the presence there of such distinguished faculty members as Albert Einstein, Kurt Gödel and John von Neumann. Instead he followed Hans Bethe to Cornell, where he taught theoretical physics from 1945 to 1950. Feynman then opted for the position of Professor of Theoretical Physics at the California Institute of Technology (partly for the climate, as he admits), despite offers of professorships from other renowned universities. He remained there for the rest of his career.

During his years at Caltech, he continued the work on quantum electrodynamics (the theory of the interaction between light and matter) he had begun at Cornell, and for which he was awarded the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics. He developed an important tool known as Feynman diagrams to help conceptualize and calculate interactions between particles, notably the interactions between electrons and their anti-matter counterparts, positrons. Feynman diagrams, which are easily visualized graphic analogues of the complicated mathematical expressions needed to describe the behaviour of systems of interacting particles, have permeated many areas of theoretical physics in the second half of the twentieth century. He also worked on the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium and its quantum mechanical behaviour; a model of weak decay (such as the decay of a neutron into an electron, a proton and an anti-neutrino) in collaboration with fellow Caltech professor Murray Gell-Mann; and his parton model for analyzing high-energy hadron collisions. At Caltech Feynman gained a reputation for being able to explain complex elements of theoretical physics in an easily understandable way – he opposed rote learning, although he could also be strict with unprepared students. His 1964 Feynman Lectures On Physics remains a classic.

In December 1959, Feynman gave a visionary and ground-breaking talk entitled ‘There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom’ at an American Physical Society meeting at Caltech. In it, he suggested the possibility of building structures one atom or molecule at a time, an idea which seemed fantastic at the time, but which has since become widely known as nanotechnology. He was also one of the first scientists to conceive of the possibility of quantum computers and played a crucial role in developing the first massively parallel computer, finding innovative uses for it in numerical computations, building neural networks and physical simulations using cellular automata.

Just two years before his death, Feynman played an important role in the Rogers Commission investigation of the 1986 Challenger Space Shuttle disaster. During a televised hearing, Feynman famously demonstrated how the O-rings became less resilient and subject to seal failures at ice-cold temperatures by immersing a sample of the material in a glass of ice water. He developed two rare forms of cancer, Liposarcoma and Waldenström's macroglobulinemia, and died on 15 February 1988 in Los Angeles.

After obtaining his PhD at Princeton University, Edwin Mattison McMillan entered the University of California at Berkeley as a National Research Fellow. After two years of work on the measurement of the magnetic moment of the proton by the molecular beam method, he became a Staff Member of the Radiation Laboratory under Ernest Lawrence, studying nuclear reactions and their products, and helping in the design and construction of cyclotrons (for which Lawrence won the Nobel Prize in 1939); he also joined the Faculty of the Department of Physics at Berkeley. In 1940 McMillan and Phillip Abelson produced a new element, element 93, when they bombarded uranium-235 with neutrons. This was the first time a transuranium element had ever been artificially created. McMillan dubbed the new element ‘neptunium.’ In 1941, McMillan, Glenn Seaborg, Joseph W. Kennedy, and Arthur Wahl isolated another new element, element 94, for the first time. Following McMillan's practice of naming element 93 after a planet, Seaborg named element 94 ‘plutonium.’ In 1942 McMillan was involved in the initial selection of Los Alamos, and moved there to conduct implosion research. After the war McMillan returned to the University of California Radiation Laboratory (later known as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory), eventually becoming its director. In 1945 he had the idea of ‘phase stability’ which led to the development of the synchroton and synchro-cyclotron; these machines extended the energies of artificially accelerated particles into the region of hundreds of MeV. McMillan won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry 1951 for “discoveries in the chemistry of the transuranium elements.”



8vo (209 x 138 mm), pp. [7], 8-350. Publisher’s red cloth with dust jacket. Spine strip of dust jacket lightly sunned, top 1 mm of cloth spine slightly sunned, otherwise both very fine and fresh.

Item #4459

Price: $35,000.00

See all items by