[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.]
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
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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