January 13, 2019

Feynman’s Perfectly Reasonable Deviations

The book Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: Selected letters of Richard P. Feynman, by Richard Feynman and Michelle Feynman, was kindly gifted to me after my promotion. I have finally gotten around to read it, and am sharing my opinion.

Richard Feynman was an American theoretical physicist who assisted in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II, and who later received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics. Throughout his life, Richard Feynman wrote many letters to family, colleagues, students, fans, etc. This book contains his letters more or less unedited, and sorted by different timeperiods one can distinguish in his life. Here is the description of the book, taken from the back:

“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. Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track covers a dazzling array of topics and themes, scientific developments and personal histories. With missives to and from scientific luminaries, as well as letters to and from fans, family, students, crackpots, as well as everyday people eager for Feynman’s wisdom and counsel, the result is a de facto guide to life, and eloquent testimony to the human quest for knowledge at all levels.

Why I enjoyed it

Reading this book now felt timely, now that I work as an Assistant Professor at TU Delft. Richard Feynman’s letters, particularly those to his friends and colleagues, contain many relatable views and experiences.

Regarding the day-to-day affairs of working at a knowledge institution for example, Feynman writes, I had been chosen (last night) (at a meeting I didn’t attend) as representative of my dorm at Los Alamos. He also writes to one of his colleagues, I am sorry to hear you have been unable to resist getting a case of our occupational disease, where he is referring to administration tasks in university in general.

On evaluating people, he writes There is today, in my opinion, no science capable of adequately selecting or judging people. So I doubt that any intelligent method is known, I agree that writing evaluations and judging people indeed presents a gray area without absolute answers. He also writes, I am sorry, but I have a general policy never to write evaluations of people for institutions where that person has recently spent time, or is still located. My reason is that the people at the institution have had ample opportunity to observe him themselves (more recently, and more closely, than I) and should be capable of making their own evaluation. The relience of academia on committees and outside evaluations is indeed somewhat excessive at times.

Feynman also shares many inspirational views on research and education throughout his letters. For instance, he writes that The real entertainment gimmick is the excitement, drama and mystery of the subject matter. People love to learn something, they are ‘entertained’ enourmously be being allowed to understand a little bit of something they never understood before. One must have faith in the subject and in the people’s interest in it. And as general critism to education, One gets the impression then that science is to be a set of pat formulas to standard questions. ‘What makes it move,’ quickly all hands are eagerly raised, the lesson is learned, they are to say ‘Energy makes it move,’ ‘Gravity makes it fall,’ ‘The soles of our shoes wear out because of friction.’ Just words, nothing is explained. It is like just saying ‘Because of God’s will’ and having nothing left to look into.

Finally, his many loving letters to his family, his modest views, and his brief expressions of personal wishes, also remind me that, regardless of having been an exceptionally skilled scientist, Feynman was also deeply human. This made the reading of his letters even more enjoyable for me. Because in the end, we, that is to say all scholars, are also only human.