April 2005

Brendan Boyle

nonfiction

Perfect Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman edited by Michelle Feynman

En route to a conference on liquefied helium and high-energy physics, Richard Feynman wrote to his young niece describing the work that scientists do. "Atoms are complicated," he explained in a letter datelined "flying over England." "Maybe like watches are -- but atoms are so small that all we can do is smash them together and see all the funny pieces (gears, wheels, and springs) which fly out. Then we have to guess how the watch is put together… Now it looks like we know most of the parts that go in -- but nobody knows how they fit together."

Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in part for figuring out how all those parts that go in fit together. Technically, in the words of the Swedish Royal Academy, he won it for "fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics with deep-ploughing consequences for the physics of elementary particles." Feynman was already on his way to minor celebrity before the prize. His Lectures on Physics had brought him great acclaim but television made him famous. "Dear Richard," wrote one swooning fan, "I’ve fallen in love with you from seeing you on NOVA." Only Captain Kirk could make time travel sound sexier. But Kirk could only say, "Beam me up." Feynman could actually explain it.

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman brings together previously unpublished letters, organized more or less chronologically. The early letters, mostly sent to Feynman’s convalescent wife Arline, carry an Albuquerque postmark. It was there that the twenty-four-year-old Feynman, fresh out of graduate school, was working on the atomic bomb. The bulk of the material comes from Feynman’s days at Cal Tech. The recipients are a motley gang -- professional colleagues, old girlfriends, depressed former students whose experiments were going nowhere, crackpot amateur physicists, and Gweneth, Feynman’s third wife. The letters are brisk, unpretentious, and, above all else, amazingly clear. Even the rarefied stuff of quarks and mesons seem a short step away from the levers and pulleys of high school physics lab.

Making straightforward sense of the natural world was Feynman’s goal. He wrote this short note to a colleague’s son who had asked why the sun looked red at sunset. "Air molecules scatter blue light more than red… The light that is not scattered -- that passes from the sun to the eye directly -- has less blue in it -- and even less blue the more air it goes through. Thus as it sets, and we look at it through a very long column of air, [the sun] looks very red indeed." This explanation is classic Feynman: short, clear, and utterly free of condescension. And Feynman wasn’t just being nice. He’s almost always gracious, even when it probably wasn’t warranted. Some of the most enjoyable letters are to the various day-dreamers who claimed to have stumbled upon a fundamental theory of physics from the comfort of the living room. It’s a wonder that Feynman even wrote back to these mopes. That he did so with great patience, kindly pointing out where each wild theory goes wrong, makes him very attractive.

The letters are full of homely advice. "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," he tells teenager after teenager. The sentiment is nothing special, but I suspect that it was just what the little brainiacs who wrote to him needed to hear. The same for the former student upset that he isn’t talented enough to work, like Feynman, on "problems close to the gods." "No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it."

Only with his first wife Arline does Feynman sound awkward and uncertain. Three months before her death he writes, "So long sweetheart. Everything will probably come out OK." That "probably" is, of course, correct. Everything wasn’t going to come out OK. But it sounds horribly wrong and needlessly scientific. It stands out as a rare moment when Fenyman’s quantum-mechanical brain got the better of him. But perhaps this brain got the better of him for more than a moment. His second marriage lasted less than a year. Because this collection includes no letters from that time, we’re left wondering whether science sunk this relationship too. By the time he married his third wife in 1960 the "probably," at least in matters of love, had changed to "absolutely." The marriage lasted until Feynman’s death in 1988.

Feynman could be testy, particularly when someone wrote to him with a question without thinking hard about it first. But he was also short with anyone who questioned the value of scientific inquiry. After Feynman had disparaged modern poets for a lack of curiosity, an admirer sent him a copy of Auden’s "After Reading a Child’s Guide to Modern Physics" and invited him to recant. "Mr. Auden’s poem," Feynman wrote in response, "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?" By putting science in the service of beauty and awe, the ever-romantic Feynman beats the poets at their own game. Wonder and imagination were his main tools. Particle-accelerators and electron-microscopes just made the job easier.

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman edited by Michelle Feynman
Basic Books
ISBN: 0738206369
384 Pages