Sincerely, Richard P. Feynman
Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The
Letters of Richard P. Feynman. Edited by Michelle Feynman,
foreword by Timothy Ferris. xxiv + 486 pp. Basic Books, 2005. $26.
In her introduction to Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the
Beaten Track, Michelle Feynman says of her father's letters
that "Taken as a whole, they present his character in a way
that we have not seen before."
This claim sounds preposterous. We have more information about the
character of Richard P. Feynman, it is safe to say, than about that
of any other American scientist. Not only do we have an excellent
biography, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman,
by James Gleick, who had access to all of Feynman's correspondence,
we also have several volumes of anecdotes by and about Feynman,
beginning with "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!":
Adventures of a Curious Character. Furthermore, his
character has been examined in numerous movies, plays, documentaries
and interviews, and has been the subject of frank and unsparing
comments by friends and close colleagues. We can be forgiven for
thinking that we already know the essentials, down to his
transparent poses and offbeat sense of humor, and that any further
insight into his character can only be looked for in the sixth place
But the claim, astoundingly, is true. For Feynman reveals himself
somewhat differently in his correspondence than he does in his
teaching, storytelling and memoirs.
To be sure, we glean interesting new tidbits about familiar episodes
in Feynman's career: Los Alamos, the Nobel Prize, the Challenger
investigation. A letter to his mother, Lucille, describes the
Trinity test, the first explosion of an atomic bomb. Gleick's
biography contains an excerpt from this letter, but the full text is
captivating. Feynman refused to follow the example of others who put
on dark glasses and suntan oil. "I had helped to figure out how
powerful the bomb should be. . . . I wanted a full solid experience
if it did go—so I was going to look at it directly—no
dark glasses for me." Thus when it came, he was blinded by the
first silvery flash and looked away. He continued to see a brilliant
purple splotch, but his "scientific brain" alerted his
"befuddled one" that this was only an afterimage, and he
resolutely turned to look again at the bomb itself, its
mushroom-like column now rising above the desert. One minute and
forty seconds later, "suddenly there was a sharp loud crack
followed by resounding thunder," baffling the man next to him.
Feynman immediately knew the explanation: The bomb was so far away
that its "sound track" had taken that long to arrive.
"I knew then that the bomb was a success—big as it
appeared at twenty miles, I was still more impressed with the solid
sound of the thunder echoing in the hills."
That letter is immediately—and unexpectedly—followed by
a letter Feynman wrote to his first wife, Arline, 16 months after
her death (a letter that is well worn, Michelle Feynman notes,
indicating that he reread it many times). Gleick's biography quoted
this letter in full—and others have quoted it in
part—but its impact is much different when one comes upon it
after reading all of Richard and Arline's other tender
correspondence. I have never read anything like this letter. Anyone
who is not teary-eyed after finishing it has been skimming.
But these are familiar sides of Feynman. In more ordinary
correspondence, a more extraordinary side appears. Even here, we
find, he is driven to express himself with precision, and in a way
that his interlocutor understands. Declining an invitation to write
an article for a Festschrift for Hans Bethe, Feynman admits
to feeling like he "ought" to contribute because of his
friendship and regard, wittily adding, "I feel like I feel on
'Mother's Day.'" Responding to a letter from Vera Kistiakowsky
saying that some of his remarks might be interpreted as sexist,
Feynman tells her that she should place more faith and trust in her
subconscious (which had not alerted her to any sexism) than in "theory."
Especially revealing are the responses to crackpot letters. Most
scientists I know do not reply to such letters, for it flatters the
authors, does not change their minds and incites further
correspondence. Not Feynman. A crackpot attacked the twin paradox as
"propaganda" for the "orthodox" view of
relativity in a mailing to several scientists. Over the course of
four letters that included equations and experimental drawings,
Feynman doggedly (and unsuccessfully) tried to convince the author
that what's at stake is not "a matter of philosophic
argument" but of establishing by experiment "what will
happen in given . . . circumstances."
In another instance, a crackpot claimed to have discovered a new
source of energy, exhibited by the apparently unmotivated spinning
of a washer when suspended by a thread. Feynman experimented with
washers and threads before replying, observed the effect in
question, admitted to surprise at its strength, did the
calculations—which nevertheless suggested an utterly
conventional if counterintuitive explanation (lengthening threads
and unnoticed hand motions)—and wrote back suggesting further experiments.
Scientific biographies often adhere to a "standard model"
of the scientific process in which the things the person did and the
character of the person who did them are treated as two separate
topics. But these letters hint at a bigger story. They show us a
Feynman who, as Timothy Ferris observes in his excellent
introduction, "preferred to strip science bare, presenting it
with the raw immediacy of a wild animal glimpsed in its natural
habitat." We see that Feynman's curiosity, presumption,
haranguing and desire to set people straight were seamlessly
interwoven—that the physicist and educator and his character
cannot be disentangled. The same force fueled both his scientific
inquiries and his interactions with others. "The real fun of
life," he wrote, "is this perpetual testing to realize how
far out you can go with any potentialities." These letters not
only show Feynman in a new light but also suggest a little of what
lies beyond the standard model.
This book lacks the critical apparatus usually found in other
volumes of correspondence by scientists—for instance,
Robert Oppenheimer: Letters and Recollections. Too many
unidentified names appear. Too many letters are reprinted involving
congratulations on winning the Nobel Prize. Eleven letters are
included involving an episode in which Feynman is invited to a
scientific conference in Moscow and ultimately declines. This
exchange is all but meaningless out of context—readers should
have been informed that it took place during the tense and uncertain
gestation period of "Atoms for Peace," between President
Eisenhower's famous speech of December 1953 and the first conference
in 1955. This is one place among several where the book would have
benefited had it been edited by a historian rather than by a relative.
Feynman himself, of course, would not have given a damn about such
criticisms. He would have responded with something akin to what he
wrote to the German editor of "Surely You're Joking,
Mr. Feynman!": Bad reviews will be "by people
who expected more and were disappointed."
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