What's All This Then?

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What's All This Then?

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Surely You’re Joking,
Mr. Feynman!

by Richard Feynman

Field-Tested by Margaret Lyons

in Chicago, Illinois

My dad bought me a copy of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! right before I first set foot in the city I now call home. He told me I’d love the book, but I didn’t believe him. My taste — nay, my personhood itself — was incredibly complicated, and no one, especially not someone as square as my dad, could ever crack my code. I didn’t touch the book for weeks, even though "enjoys wry science humor" could pretty much be tattooed on my face, both then and now.


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I was a physics nut at 17, stone-cold sure my future was in a lab somewhere, and pretty sure that meant four years at a cozy East Coast college away, but not too far, from my parents in New York. I applied to the University of Chicago because my guidance counselor told me to, and I was a humongous dork who did all the things guidance counselors suggest (including stopping by and saying hello after graduation, which I continue to do eight years later). I don’t remember why I didn’t go alone, but my father came with me on my prospective student trip to Chicago. He is obsessed with being early, and my first of what turned out to be dozens of LGA-MDW flights was no exception. So there we sat, with hours to kill. I gave in and started the book. My father looked over.

“Oh, hey! You’re finally going to read that! Oh, it’s so smart and funny. Just like you. You’ll love it.”

“Whatever.”

To my enormous dismay, the book is both extremely smart and uniquely funny. Richard Feynman, Nobel-winning physicist, brilliant teacher, dazzling memoirist — I couldn’t get enough. He seemed so excited, so curious, so happy to be unsure and to investigate, so enamored with science. I read while we waited. I read in the air. I read that night at the hotel and the next day when parents were sent off on their own tour, and I had no one to talk to during the downtime. I drunkenly raved about the book at length at a fraternity party my dorm hosts took all the possible future students to. Reading Surely You’re Joking! was the best part of my visit to Chicago, not just because it’s a fantastic book, but mostly because I had a god-awful time. Every atrocious creature I met was more dull and out of touch than the last, either bitter, slutty, narcissistic, or worst of all, all three. People walked slowly, called soda “pop,” and numbered streets got higher going south. And if Hyde Park was in Chicago, where the hell was everything? It was just me and the not-joking Mr. Feynman, killing time before fleeing this obnoxious craphole.

I was reading the last parts of the book, the part where Feynman explains “cargo cult science” and the lack of intellectual integrity in the world, and I was feeling righteously incensed as I sat on a bench waiting to meet up with my dad to head back to the airport. “Isn’t this place great?” he said. Before I could disagree, he showed me the purchase he’d made at the campus bookstore because, unsurprisingly, he’d been early to come meet me. It was a University of Chicago sticker for the family car, so he could silently, but proudly, brag about where his middle daughter was going to school. “This place is so Margaret! You’re going to love it here.” My dad was right. Again.

Margaret Lyons is still waiting for her career in science to take off. Until then, she’s the editor in chief of Chicagoist, and the TV critic for Time Out Chicago.

Buy Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

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