Surely You’re Joking

For my birthday this year, my sister gave me a copy of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.

In Part 1, subtitled “From Far Rockaway to MIT,” the famous physicist describes how at age 11 or 12 he built his own electrical circuit with lamps and switches.

At around the same age, I built a circuit of my own, in the attic over the garage, with lamps, switches and a signaling mesh made of aluminum foil to show how a computer might transmit information from one place to another.

The similarities seemed striking:  We both grew up on Long Island, experimented with electricity, and went on to study MIT.

But Feynman went much further.  Not only did he make light bulbs turn on and off, he divided up the voltage with switches to vary the glow of the light.  He made his own fuses with a warning light that went on when the fuse blew.  (I might have avoided a certain tingling feeling of 110 volts running across aluminum foil had I followed his approach.)

He applied his self-taught skills to repair radios for his neighbors and to fix their antennas.

And he did all this during the Great Depression — more than a generation of people and many generations of technology before I was born!

Many people, I suppose, start advanced science and engineering at a young age.  Feyman’s genius and persistence is that he didn’t stop.

I didn’t go much further with electrical circuits (well, except for all those Radio Shack kits …).  But I did go on to program some of the first programmable calculators and minicomputers, one of the advantages of reaching one’s teenage years in the 1970s.  But that’s another story.

__ Burt

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