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Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman (2005)

by Richard P. Feynman, Michelle Feynman (Editor, Introduction)

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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1,0431719,816 (4.06)19
One of the towering figures of twentieth-century science, Richard Feynman possessed a curiosity that was the stuff of legend. Even before he won the Nobel Prize in 1965, his unorthodox and spellbinding lectures on physics secured his reputation amongst students and seekers around the world. It was his outsized love for life, however, that earned him the status of an American cultural icon--here was an extraordinary intellect devoted to the proposition that the thrill of discovery was matched only by the joy of communicating it to others. In this career-spanning collection of letters, many published here for the first time, we are able to see this side of Feynman like never before. As edited and annotated by his daughter, Michelle, these letters not only allow us to better grasp the how and why of Feynman's enduring appeal, but also to see the virtues of an inquiring eye in spectacular fashion. The result is a wonderful de facto guide to life, an eloquent testimony to the human quest for knowledge at all levels.… (more)

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Showing 1-5 of 17 (next | show all)
I think that this collection of letters has a lower ratio of interesting or funny stories to pages, than other Feynman memoirs or biographies. It also has significantly less science (very little, actually). I would recommend reading some of those first. What we do learn from the letters, however, is a humanizing portrait of Feynman, beyond his brash public persona and genius science. There are some great moments documented here. I also couldn't help but be impressed by Feynman's generosity, after winning the Nobel, in writing thoughtful letters back to complete strangers, sometimes even crackpots.

> He realized soon after that he was falling in love with her and that he wanted to propose.Then he faulted himself for being too impulsive. He proceeded to mark a day on the calendar a few months ahead and thought, "If I still feel the same way then, I'll ask her." The night before that day arrived, he could not stand the wait and kept her up until midnight. They were married a few months later.

> My academic life has its usual characteristic of being "not write home-able." However, last week things were going fast and neat as all heck, but now I'm hitting some mathematical difficulties which I will either surmount, walk around, or go a different way—all of which consumes all my time—but I like to do very much and am very happy indeed. I have never thought so much so steadily about one problem—so if I get nowhere I really will be very disturbed—However, I have already gotten somewhere, quite far—and to Prof. Wheeler's satisfaction. However, the problem is not at completion although I'm just beginning to see how far it is to the end and how we might get there (although aforementioned mathematical difficulties loom ahead)—SOME FUN!

> "You cannot develop a personality with physics alone, the rest of life must be worked in."

> I am anxious for the responsibilities and uncertainties of taking care of the girl I love. I have, however, other desires and aims in the world. One of them is to contribute as much as to physics as I can.This is, in my mind, of even more importance than my love for Arline. It is therefore especially fortunate that, as I can see (guess) my getting married will interfere very slightly, if at all with my main job in life.

> Dearest Putzie: Lots of things happened today. First, I found out about the boxes. The x± I am writing this Tuesday Morning. I love you Tuesday Morning. But that is just a symptom of a far more extensive ailment. I love you always. … The key to my interest in all this is probably because I like puzzles so much. Each lock is just like a puzzle you have to open without forcing it. But combination locks have me buffaloed. You do too, sometimes, but eventually I figure out you. I love you, too. … This time will pass—you will get better.You don't believe it, but I do. So I will bide my time and yell at you later—now I am your lover, devoted to serving you in your hardest moments. I am your husband, call on me for help—or tell me to go—as you prefer. I will understand everything. I want to comfort you.

> The food was good and so was the company. As usual I was the only one without a coat or tie. I'm getting good at that. Now I can't go to anybody's house with a coat because everybody will be insulted to whose house I go without a coat.

> We finally got into the buses and started home. We asked one of the bus drivers on the way what his impression of the [nuclear] explosion was."Well, I don't know—you see I never had an opportunity to see one of these things go off before."

> The real entertainment gimmick is the excitement, drama and mystery of the subject matter. People love to learn something, they are "entertained" enormously by being allowed to understand a little bit of something they never understood before. One must have faith in the subject and in people's interest in it. Otherwise just use a Western to sell telephones!

> There is a great deal of "activity in the field" these days—but this "activity" is mainly in showing that the previous "activity" of somebody else resulted in an error or in nothing useful or in something promising, etc.—like a lot of worms trying to get out of a bottle by crawling all over each other. It is not that the subject is hard—it is just that the good men are occupied elsewhere. Remind me not to come to anymore gravity conferences.

> I like Hans so very much that I feel I "ought" to do what you want—but who invented this infernal idea of writing an article for a guy when he gets to be 60? Isn't there an easier way to show friendship and regard? I feel like I feel on "Mother's Day."

> Congratulations on Nobel award. Delighted to see that good textbook writing finally is being recognized. Donald Jones Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Inc.
> Dear Mr. Jones, et al: Thank you for your telegram of congratulations. I was quite unaware of your enormous influence with the Nobel Committee and shall never underestimate the power of a publishing company. Thanks to all of you who conceived and carried out this ingenious publicity maneuver. Sincerely yours, Richard P. Feynman

> You write that true Americans have a big and generous heart, which shows only what a big and generous heart you have. For you must know that a great nation, at least one where the British ideas of freedom flourish, is very complex and side by side lie the great and the mean, the generous and the selfish, just as they lie side by side in each man. To see generosity you must be generous enough not to see the meanness, and to see just meanness in a man you must be mean enough not to see the generosity.

> Do not be too mad at Mike for his C in physics. I got a C in English Literature. Maybe I never would have received a prize in physics if I had been better in English.

> Thank you very much for your letter of congratulations. Some measure fame by just a Nobel Prize but I have had a cat named after me! Thank you for such a distinguished and subtle honor.

> Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems.The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make a little headway into it. … No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it. You say you are a nameless man.You are not to your wife and to your child.You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office.You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself—it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of the naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher's ideals are.

> [to Watson, on his memoir, "The Double Helix"] And the entire ‘novel' has a master plot and a deep unanswered human question at the end: Is the sudden transformation of all the relevant scientific characters from petty people to great and selfless men because they see together a beautiful corner of nature unveiled and forget themselves in the presence of the wonder? Or is it because our writer suddenly sees all his characters in a new and generous light because he has achieved success and confidence in his work, and himself? Don't try to resolve it. Leave it that way.

> Dear Kac, I'm sorry, but I don't want to go anywhere to give lectures. I like it here and I want to work in peace and quiet—preparing, going, lecturing, and returning is too much of a disturbance to my tranquil life. Thanks for the invitation, though. Yours, Richard P. Feynman

> Mr. Auden's poem only confirms his lack of response to Nature's wonders for he himself says that he would like to know more clearly what we "want the knowledge for."We want it so we can love Nature more.Would you not turn a beautiful flower around in your hand to see it from other directions as well? … the emotions of awe, wonder, delight and love which are evoked upon learning Nature's ways in the animate and inanimate world, together (for they are one) is rarely expressed in modern poetry where the aspect of Nature being appreciated is one which could have been known to men in the Renaissance. … My lament was that a kind of intense beauty that I see given to me by science, is seen by so few others; by few poets and therefore, by even fewer more ordinary people

> Dear Ilene: I am now unique—a physicist with a fan who has fallen in love with him from seeing him on TV. Thank you, oh fan! Now I have everything anyone could desire. I need no longer be jealous of movie stars. Your fan-nee, (or whatever you call it—the whole business is new to me). Richard P. Feynman

> It seems to me that we should keep the conference as small as possible and have only guys that are really working actively in the subject attend. On item 1, what the hell is Feynman invited for? He is not up to the other guys and is doing nothing as far as I know. If you clean up the invitation list, to just the hard-core workers, I might begin to think about attending. Sincerely, Richard P. Feynman Professor Coleman wrote back to say that Feynman was off the list and urged him to come. Feynman attended the conference.

> My schedule is such lately that I must refuse to get bogged down reading someone else's theory; it may turn out to be wonderful and there I'd be with something else to think about.


> Naturally I could never understand why the girls I went out with in Ithaca wouldn't go out with me again. At last I find out—it was my brown leather jacket! So often, was I thus frustrated by pretty girls (like you) that I came out to California. Since the weather was so much better I threw away my leather jacket and at last found someone who would go out with me more than once—so I married her. I always thought that the girls in California were more tolerant—but now I know the inner workings of the phenomenon. Physics is much easier to understand.

> You said, "I was asked to assist in the creation of the world's most destructive machine but I was never asked how to use it. Now I realize what I have done and what that machine could do, and I am afraid."

> [to Wolfram] You don't understand "ordinary people." To you they are "stupid fools"—so you will not tolerate them or treat their foibles with tolerance or patience—but will drive yourself wild (or they will drive you wild) trying to deal with them in an effective way. Find a way to do your research with as little contact with non-technical people as possible, with one exception, fall madly in love! That is my advice, my friend.

> See you soon, Commissioner Feynman, Nobel Prize, Einstein Award, Oersted Medal and utter ignoramus about politics

> All three have received the Prize as the result of simultaneous, independent theoretical work conducted during 1947-1949 in quantum electrodynamics. Though the results of the three were later shown to be equivalent, Feynman introduced the pioneering "Feynman diagram," a powerful tool greatly simplifying quantum-dynamical calculations. As Feynman himself explained: "It was the purpose of making these simplified methods of calculating more available that I published my paper in 1949, for I still didn't think I had solved any real problems, except to make more efficient calculations. But it does turn out that if the efficiency is increased enough, it itself is practically a discovery. It was a lot faster way of doing the old thing."

> "Dick is always calling up to see whether Murray is working," says Mrs. Margaret Gell-Mann, an attractive blond from Birmingham, England. "If I say he's in the garden, Dick is happy for the rest of the day. But if I tell him Murray is doing physics, then Dick gets nervous and immediately wants to come over." ( )
  breic | Aug 14, 2020 |
This collection of letters showed me another side of Richard Feynman--the teacher and the man, someone who replied to letters from perfect strangers posing questions about the physical world, criticizing his language, asking favors from him. Feynman's letters are gracefully written, polite, yet clearly the writing of the same man famous for his safe-cracking, bongo-playing and quick mind. Feynman also comes across as a passionate, dedicated teacher and as a loving father and husband. Pretty good reading. ( )
  nmele | Apr 6, 2013 |
Beautifully read! ( )
  satyridae | Apr 5, 2013 |
If you’ve read any books by or about Richard Feynman, then you have to read this collection of his letters, edited by his daughter, Michelle Feynman. The letters, written over most of his lifetime to family, friends, and complete strangers, tell you nearly everything you might want to know about the man.

Published in hardcover by Basic Books. ( )
  mmtz | May 26, 2012 |
This book is composed of correspondence to and from Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize winning physicist. When he was very young he worked on the Manhattan Project and at the end of his career on the causes of the Challenger Space Shuttle accident, but in between he engaged his mind and curiousity and taught hundreds of students in a very engaging way. During his lifetime he was an excellent correspondent and, clearly, people saved his letters, so that today we are privileged to see the man he was -- intensely curious, generous, fun loving, encouraging to others, loving to his family, and never afraid to appear the fool or to fail. ( )
  whymaggiemay | Apr 24, 2011 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Feynman, Richard P.primary authorall editionsconfirmed
Feynman, MichelleEditor, Introductionmain authorall editionsconfirmed
Ferris, TimothyForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed

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For my parents, Richard and Gweneth --- For my nieces, Rachel and Emma, and my children, Ava and Marco, so that they may better know their grandfather
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Foreword -- Richard P. Feynman was both a first-rate and a famous physicist. The combination is by no means inevitable.
Introduction -- When I was very young, I thought my father knew everything. Indeed, Omni magazine once declared him "The Smartest Man in the World." Upon hearing this, his mother -- who was immensely proud of her son -- and who had a great sense of humor -- threw up her hands and exclaimed, "If Richard is the smartest man in the world, God help the world!" My father was the first one to laugh.
...the religions have tied together together two things: They, for instance, if they want to teach the Ten Commandments, they're not satisfied to teach the Ten Commandments because it's the experience of mankind or something that these are a good way to proceed. But they teach the Ten Commandments because these things were given to Moses through lightning. Now, when the science comes along, it suggests that it's possible that maybe these things weren't given to Moses through lightning. A person who doesn't think too far says, "Oh, then the whole thing is nuts. And I'm afraid to think that possibility, because maybe then the Ten Commandments have no basis at all." But that's not necessarily so. It's perfectly possible that the moralities could have come from men. It could have been that Moses was an ordinary man and that he wrote these things. And I still could believe and still behave the same way. And what I think has happened is that the religions have put together two different kinds of ideas and welded them so thoroughly - namely the theory of how the Ten Commandments arose, and the belief that you ought to follow them - that when science comes along and challenges one end of this - namely, how the Ten Commandments arose - people get nervous that they're challenging the other end of it; namely, that they have. But it's the religion who's tied them together unnecessarily; there's no real connection. And that's the way I feel; that's a personal, philosophical view of the relation of religion and science.
I can't be practising in the conventionally religious sense. It doesn't fit together. It seems to me that the ideas of conventional religion - like in the Bible and so forth - are very limited. They didn't realise the tremendous extent of the world, or the length of time in which things have been going on. It seems to me impossible, in a certain sense, that so much attention could be paid to man as is advertised in the usual religion, and so little attention paid to the rest of the world. It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different plants, and all these atoms with all their motions and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil - which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama. So I believe it's not the right picture.
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This book was published as both 'Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track' was also published under the title of 'Don't You Have Time to Think?' in the UK. Please do not separate.
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One of the towering figures of twentieth-century science, Richard Feynman possessed a curiosity that was the stuff of legend. Even before he won the Nobel Prize in 1965, his unorthodox and spellbinding lectures on physics secured his reputation amongst students and seekers around the world. It was his outsized love for life, however, that earned him the status of an American cultural icon--here was an extraordinary intellect devoted to the proposition that the thrill of discovery was matched only by the joy of communicating it to others. In this career-spanning collection of letters, many published here for the first time, we are able to see this side of Feynman like never before. As edited and annotated by his daughter, Michelle, these letters not only allow us to better grasp the how and why of Feynman's enduring appeal, but also to see the virtues of an inquiring eye in spectacular fashion. The result is a wonderful de facto guide to life, an eloquent testimony to the human quest for knowledge at all levels.

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