This is an excellent book that gives a compelling portrait of a great scientist, a fascinating personality, a decent human being. But it is a long book and gives far too much detail for anyone with a merely casual interest in Richard Feynman. Nearly 500 pages of letters to and from Feynman could either captivate you or bore you, depending on your level of interest. I was captivated. I wish I had known him personally; this book has reinforced that wish, and has partially satisfied it.
Feynman was single-minded in his devotion to science: "This [physics research] is, in my mind, of even more importance than my love for Arline" (his first wife). Yet he was surely loving and devoted to her, as is particularly clear in a heart-breaking letter he wrote to Arline after her death.
He was willing to correspond with ordinary people---particularly young people and teachers---about science, giving them good advice about what science is and how it should be studied and how it should be taught. "Stay human and on your pupil's side" was one bit of advice he gave to a mathematics teacher struggling to help his students with "new math." "You must fall in love with some activity" was a recurring theme in his advice to young people.
Feynman even responded to at least one crank (who accused Feynman and others of suppressing the crank's views on relativity), pressing him respectfully but persistently to answer a simple question that got to the heart of the scientific issue. (He evidently never got an answer.)
He refused all offers of honorary degrees, as a matter of principle, knowing how hard he had worked to get his earned degree.
He refused all requests from institutions for letters of recommendation concerning their own people: "What's the matter with you fellows, he has been right there the past few years---can't you "evaluate" him best yourself?"
He was often wry, as in this response to one congratulatory note when he won the Nobel prize: "I am sorry that I am unable to accede to your desire that I do not answer your note, as the machinery that I have set up for answering congratulatory letters does not permit that degree of flexibility. We suffer from the computer age."
He was deeply concerned when he thought he might have caused unhappiness. One former student, for instance, thought little of his own ability to work on "worthwhile" problems; Feynman wrote at length, fearing that he as a teacher had given the student a false idea of what was worth working on, and trying hard to reassure him that the worthwhile problems are the ones you can solve.
He could be touchy when the media wanted to prove that Feynman-the-scientific-genius was human by showing a picture of him playing the bongo drums: "I am human enough to tell you to go to hell" was his response on one such occasion.
He was not a religious man (" I told him that I was as strong an atheist as he was likely to find ..."), but he was a highly principled man, who refused, for instance, to be included in a book of Jewish Winners of the Nobel Prize, for reasons that he carefully delineated in a long letter to the author of that book. A single quote from that excellent letter will have to suffice here: "... intelligence, good will, and kindness is not, thank God, a monopoly of the Jewish people but a universal characteristic of mankind in general." When the author a year later asked permission to include him in a similar publication, he told her to see his previous letter "to understand why I do not wish to cooperate with you, in your new adventure in prejudice."
He was a model of brevity: "Dear Malcolm: I did work on the atomic bomb. My major reason was concern that the Nazi's would make it first and conquer the world. Sincerely, Richard P. Feynman."
He was kind and encouraging to laymen who wrote him with scientific ideas: "So your idea is at the forefront of high energy physics today. I hope you are not too disappointed that it had already been thought of."
He was always willing to admit his own ignorance and his own errors: "I made a mistake, so the book is wrong ... and you goofed too, for believing me," he wrote to one student at another college, who had gotten an exam question wrong after trusting a book he wrote.
He could be modest: "I judge from your letter that in Venezuela you are teased badly if you are a professor and you say you don't know or are not sure. I am glad that I am not so teased because I am sure of nothing and find myself having to say "I don't know" very often. After all, I was born not knowing and have only had a little time to change that here and there."
He could be blunt: "Thank you for your letter. Write me again, and lose a little weight!"
He could be charming: "Maybe it would help you with your problem about my being an American to know that my wife is an Englishwoman from Yorkshire. She has probably improved me greatly."
He could accept chastisement: "Thank you for your observations of my behavior at the Colloquium. You are probably right." "Thank you for your letter concerning my remarks in the L.A. Times. You are right, I am a jerk for telling the reporter my personal feelings and reactions to the Nobel Prize."
Michelle Feynman has done an admirable job of assembling this revealing and entertaining collection of letters, shedding light on the life and character of one of the great scientists of the 20th century.