"I have found each story by itself to be amusing, and the collection taken together to be amazing: That one person could have so many wonderfully crazy things happen to him in one life is sometimes hard to believe. That one person could invent so much innocent mischief in one life is surely an inspiration!" -- Ralph Leighton
Never trust Feynman to be serious, the title of his biography "Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman!" says to the reader. Yet just a few pages into the book, Feynman also makes it quite clear that he means what he says when the topic is science. However, in the other parts of his life, beware. This too he makes quite clear: if he is not working, he is bound to be joking, or playing tricks, or doing innocent mischief of some other sort.
Luckily for the world, he takes the large part of his life as science. He does not make a very sharp distinction between his work desk and a bar. In both places he is eager to learn what is offered, whether it is social skills or physics. The distinction that he does make between the two is that he cares much more deeply about physics than "bar science", and so feels free to entertain himself while learning in a bar.
Feynman's biography is meant to show how such a curious blend of serious science and lighthearted humor could possibly exist, to break some of the stereotyping of scientists as secluded, antisocial and single-minded. He intends to interest more people in science, both children and adults. The presentation of his life is thus conversational and humorous.
The pervasive element of the book's structure is Feynman's constant desire for knowledge. This is not only clear from the constant emphasis on knowledge and science throughout his life as he describes it, but also from the book's anecdotes. Every story describes how Feynman learned about some part of the world. His uniqueness is in that he did not limit his lifelong learning to one subject as many scientists do, but instead learned at any possible opportunity.
Feynman's description of his childhood is exemplary of the way he chooses to present himself. The description of his childhood focuses on his home lab and exploration of basic physical phenomena. Feynman, however, does not merely choose to focus on content relevant to his passion about science. When describing episodes of social occasions he demonstrates how it is possible to adapt from single-mindedly admiring science to enjoying much of the other world. His respect for learning is thus not restricted to his field.
Feynman's passionate interests went before everything else in his career. He rejected an attractive and high paying job offers because he would be unable to devote as much time to the things he enjoyed. Before pay and location always came the working atmosphere where he could work enjoyably, an atmosphere where work could become like play. To emphasize this, stories of two job offers are told. He rejected an offer from Cornell because he felt it could not offer an informal, friendly research atmosphere that he could enjoy at Caltech. He found the offer from the University of Chicago unsatisfactory in spite of its incredible wage because spending this wage would distract Feynman from his work.
Another prominent feature of Feynman's personality that is present in all the stories is his wonderful ability to communicate at any level, the way the book is written an excellent testimony to this. He is able to discuss theoretical physics with fellow professors and short time afterwards go to a bar and talk with "real" people, who may not have a clue about physics, but have knowledge of the world and physical work. Once when presenting for a commission discussing ethics in education, a stenographer asked him about the job he had. The stenographer thought that Feynman could not be a professor, since Feynman was the only person on the commission whose presentation he understood.
Apart from the ability to be understood well, he often equivocated. Once when asked about whether he stole a door from a room in a fraternity, he said yes, and described it in detail. Since he was known to be a kidder, however, nobody believed him. Similarly, at the army's psychiatrist examination he answered each question truthfully and in detail. He described how he occasionally talked to his dead wife, how he heard voices before falling asleep. As a result of his "honesty", he was classified as "Deficient" in the category. To avoid being considered dishonest, he wrote a letter to the draft board explaining that the results of the examination were wrong due to a "gross mistake", and that he should not be drafted not because of his mental health, but because of his teaching obligations. The board rejected him again for "medical reasons", the desired result.
Another distinctive trait of Feynman's character that is emphasized by the book is his love of games and mischief. While working for the Manhattan Project, he entertained himself by picking "secure" locks and cracking people's safes. At Princeton, he impressed people by doing complex math in his head. Yet, as it turns out he was only able to do the few problems given to him extra fast because of luck. He was able to crack safes because he found out the combinations while the safes were open. He always escaped things that did not seem doable by a shortcut. In humanities classes at MIT, Feynman took such shortcuts by interpreting the question to make answering it a pleasure.
Feynman was one of the scientists working to build the nuclear bomb at Los Alamos. Feynman's attitude towards the US government during the period was untypical in several respects. Although he was willing to help, he was critical of many of the policies of the Los Alamos management. He was able to actually cause change, because instead of going through all the levels of communication up to the top, he exposed problems in the system by acting. He brought security holes at Los Alamos to attention by picking locks and cracking safes. His approach is exceptional in that it worked fast, while other forms of appeals might take longer than the development of the bomb. Even in the tangled web the US government is, Feynman found a shortcut.
Regardless of how truthful the individual stories in the book appear, the whole collection is hardly believable. It seems impossible that so many things and with a huge amount of work in science could be done in one life, yet there it is, and the reader just has to trust it. If Feynman's life can be called unbelievable, then the possibility of anyone distorting it is unimaginable.