Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, by Richard Feynman

Daniel Wahl reviews Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, by Richard Feynman.

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman, by Richard Feynman. New York: Basic Books, 2006. 512 pp. $18 (paperback)

When a representative for the USSR invited Richard Feynman to a physics conference in that country, he wrote back this letter:

Thank you very much for your invitation to the Dubna Conference. I have thought a good deal about the matter and would have liked to go. However, I believe I would feel uncomfortable at a scientific conference in a country whose government respects neither freedom of opinion of science, nor the value of objectivity, nor the desire of many of its scientist citizens to visit scientists in other countries. (p. 143)

This is one of many gems in Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman. The book is full of such letters, and they range, like Feynman’s own interests, across myriad subjects.

Many of the letters are Feynman’s responses to letters asking about the best way to go about learning or teaching the subject of physics. For example, in a reply to an incoming freshman at CalTech, Feynman writes:

Learn by trying to understand simple things in terms of other ideas—always honestly and directly. What keeps the clouds up, why can’t I see stars in the daytime, why do colors appear on oily water, what makes the lines on the surface of water being poured from a pitcher, why does a hanging lamp swing back and forth—and all the innumerable little things you see all around you. Then when you have learned to explain simpler things, so you have learned what an explanation really is, you can then go on to more subtle questions. (p. 230)

Other letters are more personal. For example, the private letters between Feynman and his mother about his choice to marry Arline, even after she became seriously ill, show Feynman as a young man of integrity. The letters between Arline and Feynman show them both being playful and deeply in love with one another. They include her saying she loves him for his honesty, his clean-cut reasoning, his straightforwardness, and his strength. And, on a supremely sad note, among these is a letter that Feynman wrote to Arline nearly two years after she died.

For those who know Feynman only through books such as Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! or What Do You Care What Other People Think?, these letters show a much more intimate and serious side of Feynman. His love of life and his benevolence come across in nearly every letter, and some are surprisingly warm. For example, in response to a letter from a colleague who sounded depressed about the kind of work he was doing, Feynman wrote:

I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the Research Laboratories.

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. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.

You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. student . . . whose thesis was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem instead of letting you find your own; and left you with a wrong idea of what is interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely, those problems you see you may do something about). I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to help correct it a little.

I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed. For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or, how elastic properties of crystals depend on the forces between the atoms in them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio nobs). . . . 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. (pp. 198–201)

Feynman repeatedly stresses in his advice to correspondents the value of thinking for yourself, based on your own standards, and doing what you love to do. Importantly, he stresses this not as “some sort of obligation” but as “the only way to get true deep happiness” (p. 414). And, of course, Feynman’s letters show him taking his own advice.

For example, he loved to solve problems as well as to entertain people, and readers see him doing plenty of both in these letters, which include behind-the-scenes looks at some well-known episodes of Feynman’s life, from his days cracking safes while working on the atomic bomb to his time figuring out what caused the Challenger Space Shuttle to break apart mid-flight.

The letters also include entirely new (at least to me) bits of this great man’s history. For example, did you know that Feynman wowed the brilliant minds at Los Alamos with a lecture on, of all things, arithmetic? And did you know that this fiercely independent thinker, who bowed to no authority, was frequently asked to answer scientific questions as . . . an authority? His letters in response are classic Feynman.

Although I’ve read a number of books by and about Feynman, after reading this collection of his letters, I have a much greater appreciation of his mind, his intelligence, and his character. More importantly, the book fortified my understanding of (among other things) what it means to take things seriously, the value of diving deep into a subject I find interesting, and the importance of thinking about what I “want to do” not what I “want to be” (p. 415).

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