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HOME > ON THE BOOKSHELF > July-August 2005 > Bookshelf Detail


Sincerely, Richard P. Feynman

Robert Crease

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."

From Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten TrackClick to Enlarge Image

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 of decimals.

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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