"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."

-- E.O. Wilson

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Tuesday, May 26, 2009

The Inner Feynman

A Man Of Letters

Like a lot of science-types I'm a Feynman groupie --- admiring physicist Richard Feynman's scientific brilliance, and finding his personality and character fascinating and endearing. I've enjoyed several of the books written by or about him over the years, but had never read the volume of his personal correspondences that was published several years back (2005), compiled by his daughter Michelle, entitled "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track".
Better late than never... A friend sent the volume to me, and I jaunted my way through it, with varied (mostly good, but somewhat mixed) reactions.
Many of the letters are very mundane, to the point of wondering why they were even included. Other letters are so personal in nature (usually to one of his wives or family members) one almost feels uncomfortable reading them, knowing the writer was not around to grant his okay for their publication --- the fact that his own daughter selected/compiled this material eases, but does not entirely dispel, the discomfort (almost voyeuristic feeling) in perusing some of these missives that publicly bare Feynman's private 'human' side.

More interesting (to me) are the letters back and forth with various other scientists, professionals, and even certain fans, young students, or oddballs who contacted him over the years with sincere questions. The letters from the early/mid-60's on are especially good and fortunately make up the bulk of the work, which can be savored. Here we see the brilliant, playful, iconoclastic, even rascally Feynman that we've come to relish. One of my favorite exchanges of letters (spanning a decade-long stretch in the '60's) involves Feynman trying to politely resign his membership from the prestigious National Academy of Sciences. Just to give the flavor, that is oh-so vintage Feynman, an early letter to then-President Bronk of the NAS reads in part as follows:
"I am sorry that you had to be bothered by this matter of my wanting to resign my membership in the Academy. It must be quite a job worrying about all the peculiar whims of all the strange birds that make up your flock...
"My desire to resign is merely a personal one; it is not meant as a protest of any kind, or a criticism of the Academy or its activities. Perhaps it is just that i enjoy being peculiar. My peculiarity is this: I find it psychologically very distasteful to judge people's 'merit.' So I cannot participate in the main activity of selecting people for membership. To be a member of a group, of which an important activity is to choose others deemed worthy of membership in that self-esteemed group bothers me. The care with which we select 'those worthy of the honor' of joining the Academy feels to me like a form of self-praise. How can we say only the best must be allowed in to join those who are already in, without loudly proclaiming to our inner selves that we who are in must be very good indeed. Of course I believe I am very good indeed, but that is a private matter and I cannot publicly admit that I do so, to such an extent that I have the nerve to decide that this man, or that, is not worthy of joining my elite club..."
Pure, delicious, and yes, possibly peculiar, Feynman. (It took a decade, but he finally successfully resigned his membership despite the Academy's ardent wishes to keep him on board.) In a similar vein, in other letters Feynman refuses to accept "honorary" degrees from different prestigious universities because of his uncompromising distaste for 'unearned' honors (even experiencing discomfort at accepting the Nobel Prize he was awarded.)

Another very interesting exchange comes in 1967 between Feynman and a Jewish freelance writer who wishes to include him in an article on "Jewish Nobel Prize winners" and later in an article on accomplished Jewish scientists. Feynman quickly and sternly, yet politely, rebuffs the requests as he not only isn't a practicing Jew (he says, "at the age of thirteen I was converted to non-Jewish religious views"), but moreover believes the desire to attribute intelligence or accomplishment to one's heritage is a dangerous and misguided proposition; similar to the Nazis ascribing traits to whole groups of people based on their heritage.

There are so many wonderful, even amazing, passages I would like to share here (unfortunately some are buried between rather duller stretches of composition), but one ought read and select one's own favorites.
In later life, Feynman became especially interested in the manner of science instruction at the lower school levels, and his thoughts/writings on that subject are always illuminating as well. Although some of the book's entries are plain or repetitive, others shine with Feynman's famous independence, humor, even mischief, as well as his wonder in the world and his legendary teaching forte.
Indeed, Feynman the teacher, Feynman the inquisitor, the playful rascal, the incisive scientist, and Feynman the mere mortal human, are all here on display. And I believe the volume gets better and better as it progresses --- as Feynman ages, so too are his communications more seasoned, succinct, and insightful. The "Foreward" and "Introduction" to the book are also very good, by the way.

I give this volume a "B+" and recommend it to all Feynman fans (who have probably already devoured it well before me), with a caution that the pre-1960 material (first 100 pages or so) doesn't measure up to the rest of the book, and patches of triteness or repetition do arise as with any extensive collection of letters. Non-Feynman fans (is there such a thing in the scientific community???) may take a pass on it. And I would have enjoyed the book even more had it included fewer letters, but more commentary and anecdotes from friends and family members interspersed between the letters (though that was not the compiler's purpose) --- even the six Appendices, I think, could've been effectively integrated into the main body of the volume, rather than slapped on at the end. Still, the volume easily takes its rightful place among the growing library and lore on this singular American icon.
hank you Michelle Feynman for taking the time to draw together these non-scientific communiques of your illustrious father. No doubt you've evoked many happy memories and brought a smile to many faces.

A NY Times review of the book is HERE.

Lastly, for anyone unfamiliar with Feynman, a 1981 interview with him from the BBC was shown to huge popular acclaim both in Britain and in the U.S. (the video is rough/grainy in spots) :



1 comment:

Priscilla said...

I first learned of Feynman many years ago when I was married to a physicist (a previous lifetime!). I too was charmed by his humor and special brand of peculiarity. Thanks for this thoughtful review. And many thanks for the blogroll mention of This Lively Earth! I look forward to catching up on more of your posts.