[Paleopsych] Telegraph: (Feynman) Banging the drum for principles

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Wed Jul 20 20:29:14 UTC 2005

Banging the drum for principles

[Another review, by John M. Harrison, appended.]

    (Filed: 26/06/2005)

    Anthony Daniels reviews Don't You Have Time to Think? by Richard P

    Richard Feynman was, until his death in 1988, the most famous
    physicist in the world. Only an infinitesimal part of the general
    population could understand his mathematical physics, but his outgoing
    and sunny personality, his gift for exposition, his habit of playing
    the bongo drums, and his testimony to the Presidential Commission on
    the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster turned him into a celebrity.

    This book is a selection of his letters. By no means all of them are
    indispensable, and as the book does not pretend to be a scholarly
    compilation of his entire correspondence, many might have been culled
    to make the book shorter. But there are still a great many letters
    here that are interesting and moving.

    Feynman's first wife had tuberculosis and died of it in 1945, spending
    her last months in a sanatorium in Albuquerque while he worked on the
    Manhattan Project to build the first atom bomb. Feynman wrote to her
    every day; six weeks before she died, he wrote: "You are a nice girl.
    Every time I think of you, I feel good. It must be love. It sounds
    like a definition of love. It is love. I love you."

    This has great charm. Feynman was widowed when he was 27, and 16
    months later, he wrote another letter to his dead wife, which we are
    told bore the signs of repeated handling, ending: "My darling wife, I
    do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead. P.S. Please excuse my
    not mailing this - but I don't know your new address."

    He was too high-spirited, however, to let this tragedy destroy him,
    and the following year he produced the work that won him the Nobel

    Although he was fully aware of his own exceptional powers (how could
    he not be?), Feynman avoided all pomposity, as if he were always aware
    of its dangers. He turned down honorary doctorates, with the argument
    that they debased real ones; he resigned from the National Academy of
    Sciences because he thought it was a self-congratulatory club of
    people who were pleased with their own self-proclaimed eminence.

    On the other hand, he was patient with laymen who wrote to him out of
    the blue. When they accused him of bad behaviour, which in fact were
    often only very minor lapses of decorum, he often admitted it with due
    humility; he dispensed advice to parents anxious about their
    offspring's career. He said that children should find something that
    interested them passionately and pursue it regardless of the
    obstacles. He thought people should have ambitions to do something
    rather than to be something.

    Feynman's integrity was very great. He refused to be included in
    laudatory compendia of Jewish or American scientists, because he said
    that science was universal and not the property or product of one
    nation or group. When he was ignorant of anything he admitted it, and
    refused to be drawn publicly on questions on which his opinion, that
    of a layman, was worth no more than anyone else's.

    Only once in these letters did I find him writing something that was
    patently untrue. An adolescent boy had written to him asking him to
    evaluate a certain idea that he had had. The boy wanted to publish it
    as a letter to the Scientific American, and his father was worried
    that the journal would plagiarise him. Feynman replied that scientists
    were interested only in the truth, and that questions of priority were
    of no account for them.

    This is not so, of course. Arguments about priority of discovery not
    only do happen, but happen quite frequently, and are often mixed up
    with questions of national pride. Perhaps Feynman was seeking only to
    maintain the boy's faith in science. More likely, he himself had
    always been motivated by intellectual curiosity and wonderment, never
    seeking rewards, monetary or otherwise, except those of the pleasure
    of discovery; and he could genuinely not conceive of scientists who
    were differently motivated. This is testimony both to the very
    elevated company in which he moved, to his own character and to his
    confidence in his own genius. It is a sad fact that only supremely
    gifted people - and then not all of them - are capable of acting
    without any admixture of baser motives.

    For the last 10 years of his life, Feynman had many medical problems,
    including a rare tumour in his abdomen, which he bore with dignity and
    fortitude. The double Nobel Prize winner, Linus Pauling, wrote to him
    advising him to take lots of Vitamin C. On this subject, Pauling
    became something of a crank, but Feynman answered him with admirable
    tact. This book is worth having for Feynman's last words alone: "I'd
    hate to die twice," he said. "It's so boring."

      Anthony Daniels is a writer and retired doctor

    Don't You Have Time to Think?
    Richard P Feynman
    486pp, Allen Lane, £20


Physics, bongos and the art of the nude 

    (Filed: 12/06/2005)
    M John Harrison reviews Don't You Have Time to Think? by Richard P

    Richard Feynman was the perfect scientist for his day and ours: a
    pleasure-loving, ego-driven populist, aware of his own mythologising
    narrative. He was the plain-speaking man who stormed MIT, Princeton
    and Caltech, helped design the atom bomb, and won the Nobel Prize for
    his part quantum electrodynamics, an investigation of the world so
    subtle as to be barely explicable outside particle physics journals.
    At the same time, he insisted that physics be part of life, and that
    life be fun. Feynman's excursions in bongo drumming, safe-cracking and
    the art of the nude are a matter of legend; they have made the Feynman
    brand as unassailable as his scientific credentials.

    These letters, selected, edited and introduced by his daughter
    Michelle, cover Feynman's life from the Princeton days to his death
    from cancer in 1988 at the age of 69. Their recipients range from his
    mother to the US Department of State, and their contents vary from "a
    problem in long division" set for his father to the long-running
    dispute over his attempt to resign from the American Academy of
    Science. After his mother has visited him at Princeton in 1940, he
    writes: "The night you left I had a fellow visit me and we finished
    the rice pudding and most of the grapes."

    At Los Alamos in 1945 we discover him reading the encyclopaedia for
    relaxation. During the Cold War he refuses an invitation to go into
    intelligence work - a salesman, he thinks, would do better. After
    winning the Nobel Prize, he turns down an honorary degree because it's
    like being offered an "honorary electrician's licence", and declines
    to be included in Tina Levitan's The Laureates: Jewish Winners of the
    Nobel Prize on the grounds that it is an "adventure in prejudice".

    Among the sometimes tedious academic correspondence we find generous
    responses to teenagers who think they might like to get into science;
    and to science-fiction writers who imagine they have found a way round
    one immutable physical law or another.

    Surprisingly, a biography emerges from the stream of data (Michelle
    found "12 filing-cabinet drawers and thousands of sheets of paper" in
    the Caltech Archive); unsurprisingly, it demonstrates the very
    elements of uncertainty Feynman liked physics to have.

    Contradictions emerge - for example, although he clearly prided
    himself on the antics that distinguished him from other physicists,
    there were limits. "Theoretical physics is a human endeavour... this
    perpetual desire to prove that people who do it are human by showing
    that they do other things... (like playing bongo drums) is insulting
    to me." He was insulted, too, when a student newspaper used a "candid"
    photograph to accompany its celebration of his Nobel Prize: fun wasn't
    appropriate "on such an important occasion".

    The most touching exchanges are between Richard and his first wife
    Arline. They married early, and she was dying of tuberculosis; while
    he wrangled atom-bomb physics at Los Alamos, she slipped away in a
    sanatorium in Albuquerque. Grammar divides them as often as geography:
    Arline punctuates with hurried, breathless, dashes, while Richard
    resorts to a numbered list. His chatter is relentless. He will do
    anything to entertain her - he has picked a Yale lock for fun, he has
    ruined his expensive watch by tinkering with it - but all the time
    Arline is going down.

    In an extraordinary rhetorical effort to steady her in the face of
    death, Feynman writes her a letter about herself as if she is someone
    else: "I have a problem which I can't handle and I'd like to discuss
    it with you. Maybe you would know what to do." Suddenly he panics - "I
    understand at last how sick you are. I am sorry to have failed you,
    not to have provided the pillar you need to lean upon" - but it's too

    We appreciate the scale of the tragedy when, a year after her death,
    he writes to her once more: "I love you so that you stand in my way of
    loving anyone else." This letter, Michelle Feynman records, "is well
    worn... it appears as though he reread it often".

    So who is revealed in this book? Certainly the wise educator and
    boyish, irrepressible clown of his daughter's introduction. But
    there's no doubt that boyish irrepressibility, especially coupled to a
    literalistic sense of humour, can be tiring, or that Feynman's
    populism has a hectoring quality.

    There's no doubt, either, that his colleagues sometimes felt he was
    too clever at building his brand. There is a risk that we still see
    only this construct. Time is a great demythologiser, but for now we
    have Michelle's favourite father and everyone else's favourite

    Don't You Have Time to Think?
    Richard P Feynman
    486pp, Allen Lane, £20

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