Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman by Richard

Richard P. Feynman (1918-1988), in case you missed it, won the Noble Prize in 1965 for the discovery of asymptotic freedom in the theory of the strong interaction, a hot bull-session topic at Georgia Tech, but otherwise something seldom discussed at the average cocktail party. Feynman went to MIT, received his PhD from Princeton in 1942 and then helped build the atom bomb. He subsequently settled down as a professor at the California Institute of Technology. Somewhere along the way he became something of a cult figure, not because his physics kept popping up in run-of-the-mill conversations, but for popularizing physics, for his enthusiasm for discovery, and for a lifestyle that wasn’t entirely orthodox.

Normally I don’t like the collected letters of anyone and would never willingly read, much less voluntarily review, such collections. Well, there’s an exception to every rule and this collection, the letters of Richard Feynman, is my exception simply because these are the letters of Richard Feynman. I was excited by the opportunity to read the book and my effort was certainly rewarded.

The reason I generally don’t like the collected letters of anyone is that if the letters are worth reading, I feel like I’m sneaking around in someone’s private affairs where I have no business being. If someone wanted his letters to be read by God and everybody, he’d write them to the editor of the New York Times, not to mom or his lover or the bill collector. Feynman’s letters generally did not make me feel like a voyeur, but there is one topic that left me uncomfortable. Feynman’s first wife died of tuberculosis in 1946. His correspondence with and about her is absorbing, warm and touching, but a topic where I felt like I was intruding into a conversation so deeply private I shouldn’t be listening in.

If you feel like I do about staying out of peoples’ private lives, you might want to skip most of the mail between 1943 and 1945. Again there’s an exception. Feynman’s letter of August 9, 1945, describes to his mother the first explosion of the atomic bomb. It’s not to be missed. His language is effusive: “The sky was lit with a bright yellow light… the earth appeared white… the yellow gradually became darker, turning gradually orange… white clouds above the gadget caused by the sudden expansion… the orange got deeper, but where the gadget was it was still bright, a bright orange flaming ball-like mass.” He is enthusiastic: “We jumped up and down, we screamed, we ran around slapping each other on the back, shaking hands, congratulating each other… ” Only later will he realize the gravity of the gadget he helped create.

Otherwise, if you want a glimpse of why Feynman became a pop-culture personality, these letters, lovingly collected and edited by his daughter, Michelle Feynman, will prove fascinating. They don’t assume much knowledge of physics and neither do they clarify the details and intricacies of Feynman’s science. But, unless you can solve multi variable calculus problems in seven dimensions without recourse to a pad and pencil, much less a computer, you’re probably not much interested in the fine points of Feynman’s physics.

Feynman became popular because of his exceptional ability to write about the most obtuse areas of science while telling a damn good story, often one about himself, generally one that exposed his irreverence or silliness. But there was more to this popularization than just writing good, comprehensible science in order to supplement a professor’s meager wages. The fun of physics, indeed of science generally, is discovery, and Feynman is able to transmit his enthusiasm for discovery in ways few scientists manage to do. He is first, last and always a teacher.

Discovery requires freedom and Feynman became a proponent for an almost unrestrained academic freedom. A student might write to ask him which course, A or B, would advance a career the most rapidly. Feynman’s answer would most likely be whichever course sparks the greatest interest for that person. Follow where your curiosity leads.

Such an attitude, of course, brought Feynman into conflict with the scientific hierarchy and the educational bureaucracy. Early in his career, Feynman resigned from the prestigious National Academy of Science, an unorthodox move if there ever was one. Several distinguished gentlemen of science then wrote to him to explore his complaints and try to find ways to properly corral him. Feynman insistently answered that his reasons were personal and have nothing to do with the Academy. But, the letters do reveal that he saw no purpose in being a member of a self-perpetuating, self-congratulatory organization. He, however, adamantly avoided making a public criticism of the Academy.

Feynman carried on a surprisingly slight correspondence with his scientific colleagues. He was not prone to feather his nest by schmoozing. He carried out, however, an extensive correspondence with the general public. Here a third grader writes to ask how to become a scientist, there a freshman physics student writes seeking advice on a technical problem. A science-fiction novelist writes to test an idea for his next book. Feynman always replies with a gentle, encouraging and sometimes humorous answer. And so it goes — an extensive journey through a lifetime of discovery and an uncommon faith in the ability of the common folks to grasp complex ideas and engage in free speculation.

Who, then, should read this collection? Of course, any practicing physicist or scientist will enjoy these letters. Or they should, anyway. The letters may be particularly cherished by anyone setting out for the life of scholarship, whatever the discipline. But those who would supervise and instruct future scholars, that is those in the educational hierarchy and bureaucracy, should read these letters with even greater care. Those who would resist should be forced to it at gunpoint, or possibly simply shot without further deliberation. Today, the academic community seems overly infected with bored careerists more interested in building curriculum vitae and acquiring prestige, not to mention material goods, than in the excitement of learning and discovery. Feynman’s letters remind us of what we’re supposed to be doing: pursuing discovery.

And last of all is any reader who feels that there is something missing, that life’s zest has faded and the excitement is gone. Feynman loved both discovery for the sake of discovery and living, simply because it is such an exciting journey of discovery. These letters convey his excitement, his zest. They are entirely fresh and entirely refreshing.