Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track

I have a huge man-crush on Richard P. Feynman.  And if you don't, I judge you for it (unless you're a woman, in which case, it should be a regular, run-of-the-mill crush).  He was a brilliant scientist who could make complex phenomena understandable to us less-brilliant folk.  He understood what science is all about, something you rarely see communicated so clearly, even from other scientists.  And he's a joy to listen to, no matter what subject he's talking about.  Just search for "Feynman" on Youtube, and prepare to spend a few hours listening to the man speak (I almost typed "waste" rather than "spend" here, but that would have been a mistake.  Listening to RPF is certainly not time wasted).

So last week I was hanging around in Barnes and Noble in Boston before I had to catch a train back home, when I came upon a book called Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track.  Michelle Feynman, RPF's adopted daughter, collected tons of letters written by and to her father throughout his life, and compiled them into this book.  I'd read Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman (Adventures of a Curious Character) a while ago and loved it.  I had never heard of this collection before, and felt like I had found a jewel here, and bought it immediately.  I was more than right.

I've made it about half way through the book so far, and it is absolutely amazing to read the variety of things RPF thought about, and shared with others.  We get to see his mind at work on the research he's working on, the love he had for his wives (his first wife, Arlene, who died of tuberculosis in 1945, and his second while Gwyneth, who moved from England to California to become his housekeeper) and his children, his views on math and science education, and his willingness to take time out to answer physics questions from everyday people with care, patience and compassion.

Even when you'd expect a scientist to be annoyed, such as when a man claimed to discover a new fundamental force in the universe using a washer and some string, Feynman responded with his own experiment to prove that there was no new force.  But most importantly, he did it kindly, without being rude or condescending.  When most people wouldn't have even bothered to respond, Feynman was truly interested in bettering another person's understanding of the way the world works.  Through these letters, you see how much Feynman respected science above everything, and how much he loved doing it.  (There is one instance which could be considered an angry response from Feynman, but it was brilliantly articulated and I happen to think he was fully justified in his response.  I'll be writing about that one in a later post.)

One of the criticisms I've heard about Feynman is that he was egotistical and fake.  To me, these letters don't support that at all.  A number of times, someone will write to him about errors in one of his lectures or books, and his response is always the same.  "You're probably right, I probably made a mistake."  He reminds again and again that there's no such thing as an authority in science.  Nature speaks for itself, regardless of what he, or anyone else says about it.  And to suggest that some of the things he did were "phony" or "fake" doesn't hold much water when you read his letters.  You may not agree with some of his positions (e.g., not accepting honorary degrees), but he stuck by his principles, and there doesn't seem to be anything fake about it. 

I think anyone who enjoys Feynmanisms, or who enjoys science in general, will love this book.  But I think this book has a much broader appeal.  I think anyone can appreciate someone who loves what they do, and wants to share it with others.  He often gets letters from students and parents about what the students should be studying, and how to become a scientist, and his advice is always to follow your passions.  If you truly love to do something, you'll inevitably work hard and become good at it, and you'll enjoy it.  Whether that leads you to physics, chemistry, art or anything else, it doesn't matter.  I think that's a message that everyone can appreciate, coming from someone who followed his own advice. 

Rather than do a normal book review and leave it at that, I've decided I also want to share a few of my favorite letters from the book and my own reactions to them as I read through the rest.  I have a few already I want to share, and I'm sure I'll find more as I continue to read.  Some of them resonated with me very deeply, and others I just find amusing or relevant, or just show you something you may not have known about RPF before.  I'll be posting them in the next few days, so stay tuned!
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