[Paleopsych] NYTBR: 'Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman'
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'Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track:
The Letters of Richard P. Feynman'
New York Times Book Review, 5.5.8
By KATE ZERNIKE
PERFECTLY REASONABLE DEVIATIONS FROM THE BEATEN TRACK
The Letters of Richard P. Feynman.
Edited by Michelle Feynman.
Foreword by Timothy Ferris.
Illustrated. 486 pp. Basic Books. $26.
In 1975, a woman from Seattle wrote the theoretical physicist and
Nobel laureate Richard P. Feynman to declare that she had fallen in
love after seeing him on ''Nova.'' ''Are there lots of physicists with
fans?'' she wrote. ''You have one!''
Feynman wrote back flattered -- ''I need no longer be jealous of movie
stars'' -- and signed off, ''Your fan-nee (or whatever you call it --
the whole business is new to me).''
It wasn't, of course.
There were the high school students from Springfield, Mo., who sent
him a hand-lettered birthday card to thank him for writing their
textbook. The German man who wrote to share the poem he had created
from a Feynman lecture. A man from Massachusetts wrote of a move afoot
to draft Feynman for governor. A dentist wrote to ask his views on
nuclear energy; an office equipment salesman, to propose an idea for a
particle accelerator. A California correspondent inquired whether
Feynman believed it possible to record dreams on tape, the way you do
As the new collection of Feynman letters, ''Perfectly Reasonable
Deviations From the Beaten Track,'' shows, Feynman inspired fan
worship far beyond colleagues and students of science. Teenagers wrote
to ask how they could be like him, and parents, how their children
might be. Never mind whether a physicist might actually know something
about child rearing or dreams or running a state.
''Why do I write you this letter?'' wrote the German who had turned a
Feynman lecture into a poem to comfort himself after his father's
death. ''Partly to extend my thanks to you, to tell you that with
these, to you maybe unimportant lines, you have filled another human
A whole industry of Feynman books has shown us Feynman the genius (he
won the Nobel Prize in 1965), Feynman the iconoclast (at a hearing in
Washington, he dropped a piece of rubber into ice water to demonstrate
with brilliant simplicity why the space shuttle Challenger had
exploded) and Feynman the nutty professor (he played bongo drums).
What this latest addition shows most remarkably is Feynman's place in
the popular imagination -- and how striking it is that any physicist
would occupy it. It has become common to complain that we have no
public intellectuals, but think how much rarer is the public
scientist; it is a safe bet more people can identify Paris Hilton than
Ordinary people came to regard Feynman, the boy from Far Rockaway, as
theirs -- ''Thanks for the talk,'' one British man wrote after seeing
him on television in 1981. He sparked excitement not just about
science but also about the power of creativity, passion, curiosity.
''Work hard to find something that fascinates you,'' he wrote to one
of the many students who asked him for advice. ''When you find it you
will know your lifework. A man may be digging a ditch for someone
else, or because he is forced to, or is stupid -- such a man is
'toolish' -- but another working even harder may not be recognized as
different by the bystanders -- but he may be digging for treasure. So
dig for treasure and when you find it you will know what to do.''
This selection of letters, edited by Feynman's daughter, Michelle, is
billed as the closest thing possible to his autobiography; several
books written before his death in 1988 were collections of lectures,
or spoken memoirs recorded by his frequent collaborator Ralph
Leighton. And as you would expect in an autobiography, letters here
touch on science and Feynman's place in its history. A letter to his
mother toward the end of his work on the Manhattan Project recounts
the detonation of the first atomic bomb. A letter from 1967 counsels
James Watson not to pay attention to criticism of the manuscript that
would become ''The Double Helix.'' Feynman acknowledges in a letter to
a man who wrote after reading a newspaper interview that he had hoped
''to quietly demur'' the Nobel Prize, but did not want to create a
public stink once the honor had been reported in newspapers. The
chapter of congratulatory telegrams and letters sent after the prize
was announced bubbles with giddy excitement.
But the freshest and most interesting letters here are the ones
written to regular folk -- teenagers or teachers or parents who wrote
to him from all over the world in moments of academic crisis or
emotional doubt. To a student in India who complained that he was
teased because of his stuttering, Feynman sent a book of physics
problems and a letter encouraging him to ''study calmly and quietly
those things which interest you most.'' He assured a high school
student from Connecticut, who worried that difficulties in math would
make it hard to pursue physics, not to be afraid: ''If you have any
talent, or any occupation that delights you, do it, and do it to the
hilt. Don't ask why, or what difficulties you may get into.''
A father from Alaska asked for help in directing his 16-year-old
stepson -- ''a bit overweight, a little shy'' and ''no genius you
understand, but a lot smarter than I am in math and such.'' Feynman
told the man to have patience -- ''Let him go, let him get all
distorted studying what interests him the most as much as he wants''
-- and to take father-and-son walks in the evening ''and talk (without
purpose or routes) about this and that.'' He had no good way, he
wrote, to make the boy figure out what he wanted in life. ''But to
fall in love with a wonderful woman and to talk to her quietly in the
night will do wonders.''
WHILE his spoken memoirs burnished the popular impression of Feynman
as the merry prankster, the letters here imply he grew tired of that
image. To a Swedish letter writer who had apparently suggested that
playing the bongo drums made a physicist ''human,'' he replied:
''Theoretical physics is a human endeavor, one of the higher
developments of human beings -- and this perpetual desire to prove
that people who do it are human by showing that they do other things
that a few other humans do (like playing bongo drums) is insulting to
me. I am human enough to tell you to go to hell.''
Some of the earliest letters, written to his mother from college, are
less illuminating, recording details like how many hours he slept. But
others sketch his relationship with his first wife, who died from
tuberculosis at a sanitarium in Albuquerque, where she had moved to
live near him while he worked on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos.
The tenderness and the agony expressed in the letters written around
the time of her death make you wonder if Feynman cultivated the
jokester image to mask the pain of such a tremendous loss at such an
early age. ''I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to
love you after you are dead,'' he wrote in 1946, nearly a year and a
half after she had died. ''But I still want to comfort and take care
of you -- and I want you to love me and care for me.'' Perhaps they
could still make plans together, he ventured -- but no, he had lost
his ''idea-woman,'' the ''general instigator of all our wild
''You can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my
way of loving anyone else,'' he wrote. ''But I want to stand there.
You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.''
Feynman's daughter writes that the letter is considerably more worn
than the others, suggesting that he went back to reread it again and
His fans -- new ones, too -- will find themselves doing the same.
Kate Zernike is a national correspondent for The Times.
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