Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track
8.5/10 It was a great joy reading this, I just can’t give everything a rating of 10, so a reasonable (pun intended) 8.5. It’s kind of like a biography but written by Feynman and his correspondents, who by no means are intending to write a biography, which is awesome! It has everything it needs: love letters, letters to mom (and dad), fan mail, fan hate-mail, technical letters, letters of recommendation, unsolicited advice letters, letters to government officials, letters about weather and even letters that warrant multipage responses but all they get are three sentences two months after they’ve been received - the pinnacle of being left on seen :)
So yes, I do recommend this one. A unique view into how Feynman lived his life, treated his family, friends, and enemies, and dealt with all the obstacles and rewards life through in his way.
It’s a bunch of letters, there’s no overarching story or a point that is trying to be conveyed. You’ll read glimpses into Feynman’s life all the way from his undergraduate times to when he is an old man fighting cancer and doing it gracefully. From memory, this is roughly the sequence of events that form who he was: studying math, engineering, and finally physics at uni, working on the atomic bomb, falling in love and loosing his wife to tuberculosis, traveling to Brazil and Europe after the war, working solely as a professor (never in an administrative role), working for a commission that evaluates math textbooks for high-schooler, moving to Florida, having kids and especial a son (Carl) who was passionate about science, winning the Nobel Prize, becoming famous and attending talk shows, writing both technical and non-technical books, getting sick and facing mortality, working on the commission evaluating the failure of a Challenger spacecraft.
I took a bunch of notes, mostly direct quotes from the letters. Here’s all the bits and pieces that spoke to me while I read it.
- To punish me for my contempt for authority, faith made me an authority myself
- I received your prune things during these times. Since I was not gastronomically on top of the world I have avoided eating them (p. 25)
- Entertainment in lecturing is about the subject not some artificial entertainment program (p. 98)
- It seems to me impossible, in a certain sense, that so much attention could be paid to man as is advertised in the usual religion, and so little attention paid to the rest of the world. It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different plants, and all these atoms with all their motions and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil - which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama. So I believe it’s not the right picture (p. 426)
- Isidor Rabi to Feynman after winning the Nobel Prize: One word of advice from one whose great day was twenty-one years ago. Don’t let it get you down. You will be even more on the shopping list of those who want to waste your time. Tell them to go to hell (p. 159)
- Hail the Nobel Prize Committee for its recognition of your unsurpassed achievement in the field of bongo artistry ,-Sandra Chester (p. 163)
- I know how you hate notoriety, so my sympathies are with you on this sad occasion. Those Nobel people are no respecters of the scientists’ rights to pretend they are not great copy. This is the penalty you pay for thinking. At least for thinking in that extraordinary way (p. 187)
- Your discussion on atomic Energy was hardly of a man of letters. Your technical gobbledegook did not impress me one bit. Some times I think education is a handicap. How did you get the Nobel Prize? Yours Truly, Raymond R. Rogers (p. 207)
- A zookeeper, instructing his assistant to take the sick lizards out of the cage, could say, “Take that set of animals which is the intersection of the set of lizards with the set of sick animals out of the cage.” This language is correct, precise, set theoretical language, but it says no more than “Take the sick lizards out of the cage.” The concept of things which have common properties by being a member of two groups (…) does involve intersections of sets but one does not use that language. No lack of precision results from this. (p. 456)
- In the “new” mathematics, then, first there must be freedom of thought; second, we do not want to teach just words; and third, subjects should not be introduced without explaining the purpose or reason, or without giving any way in which the material could be really used to discover something interesting. I don’t think it is worthwhile teaching such material. (p. 456) –> (later this point is contradicted when he gets a letter from a fan in which the fan writes that he finally managed to understand a concept that Feynman didn’t introduce in one of his books, but straightaway explained without motivation. The fan stated that this didn’t allow his brain to stay stubborn, and thus he understood the talked about concept although he wasn’t able to comprehend it for number of years before that.)
- The error of anti-Semitism is not that the Jews are not really bad after all, but that evil, stupidity and grossness is not a monopoly of the Jewish people but a universal characteristic of mankind in general. Most non-Jewish people in America today have understood that. The error of pro-Semitism is not that the Jewish people or Jewish heritage is not really good, but rather the error is that intelligence, good will, and kindness is not, thank God, a monopoly of the Jewish people but a universal characteristic of mankind in general (p. 235)
- Response to Feynman’s apology of not reading his friend’s paper: I would have done the same! The usual expression used in Molecular Biological circles is due to Frank Stahl: “Don’t tell me–I might think about it!” (p. 318)
- You said, “I was asked to assist in the creation of the world’s most destructive machine but I was never asked how to use it. Now I realize what I have done and what that machine could do, and I am afraid.” With those words, “I am afraid” you sat down. Dick, I will never forget the look on your face when you came back to the seat and sat down next to me. (p. 361)
- p. 411-416: best two letters on how to figure out what life is about and what it has hidden in the hat for you