No Joking Matter: Feynman on Bureaucracy (Feynman Part 3)

This post is the third and final in a series of reflections on Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, a collection of vignettes by the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman. The first posts covered two different reactions I had to the book: indignation and inspiration. In this post, I describe a third reaction, empathetic amusement—on the topic of bureaucracy.

Feynman spent his career working in those bastions of bureaucracy: universities. At my university, we have, I kid you not, a FLOW CHART that explains when and how alcohol can be served. In my own building, there was once an employee with the title “Administrative Assistant to the Assistant Dean of Administration.” Monty Python would be very proud.

Feynman doesn’t write too much about the bureaucracies at Caltech, Cornell, Princeton, or MIT. I don’t think this is simply because those are private schools (vs. my large and unwieldy public). I think it’s just because as a faculty member and a student he was mostly able to go about his business in delightful oblivion to it. However, he did have run-ins with the powers-that-be at the National Labs. His stories about lock picking showcase a bureaucracy’s tendency to ignore common sense in the name of consistency.

His best story about bureaucracy comes from his service on the Californa State Board of Education textbook selection committee. He is on the committee charged with evaluating math books. He thinks the books are all terrible, but he does a thorough job reading and scoring each one. When the committee convenes, he notices that other people have ratings but they don’t have reasons. He has suspicions they have shirked. His suspicions are confirmed when he sees that some of them have rated a blank book. Why a blank book? The publisher wanted to meet the deadline for consideration with a set of three books; two were ready, so they included blank pages inside a real cover for the third. And yet, some of the committee members had rated it, committing a classic blunder: “Don’t judge a book by its cover!”

That committee experience discourages Feynman from this public service, but the real kicker was the battle over expense reimbursement.

Them: Do you have a receipt for the parking?

F: No, but it cost $2.35 to park my car.

Them: But we have to have a receipt.

F: I told you how much it cost. If you don’t trust me, why do you let me tell you what I think is good and bad about the schoolbooks?

Them: This can’t go on, Mr. Feynman.

And it did not (go on). Up to a certain point, the genius could amuse himself by poking the bureaucratic bear. But after a point, the absurdity grew tiresome, and he moved on to more rewarding pursuits.

As for me, I have 85 more days (but who is counting?) as Bear Tamer (aka Department Chair), and then a respite from the flow charts.

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