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Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman Hardcover – 16 Mar 2005

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Product details

  • Hardcover: 486 pages
  • Publisher: Perseus Books; export ed edition (16 Mar. 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0738206369
  • ISBN-13: 978-0738206363
  • Product Dimensions: 24.6 x 15.7 x 4 cm
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 892,128 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Richard Feynman was, until his death in 1988, the most famous physicist in the world. Only an infinitesimal part of the general population could understand his mathematical physics, but his outgoing and sunny personality, his gift for exposition, his habit of playing the bongo drums, and his testimony to the Presidential Commission on the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster turned him into a celebrity.

Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, called him 'the most original mind of his generation', while in its obituary The New York Times described him as 'arguably the most brilliant, iconoclastic and influential of the postwar generation of theoretical physicists'.

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About the Author

The late Richard P. Feynman won the Nobel Prize for physics in 1965 for his many contributions, in particular his work on quantum electrodynamics. One of the most famous and beloved figures of our era, both in physics and in the public arena, he is the author of many popular and scholarly books, including The Feynman Lectures on Physics and Six Easy Pieces. He is survived by his daughter Michelle, and his son Carl.

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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Dr. John Cameron on 30 Dec. 2009
Format: Hardcover
I was a Scottish undergraduate at Pomona College in the early 1960s and we were allowed to attend some lectures at neighbouring Cal Tech. On the advice of Jack Allan, my Physics Professor in St Andrews University, I attended those of Feynman. Because this was unusual - and his wife Gweneth was English - Richard was intrigued and invited me back to his home. Thus began a friendship which I treasured both during my time in the US and when I returned to the UK.

When I knew him his Nobel Prize still lay in the future (1965) but he was already a revered figure. What Michelle does not mention is that, had he lived a few more years, he would have shared a second Nobel Prize for his explanation of Liquid Helium (1996).

I was much surprised to find this book since I knew Richard in the pre-Helen Tuck days (his secretary of 30 years) and was under the impression that he did not write letters. If I knew he was to be in the UK or I was back in California I would simply find out where he was and phone him.

I very much enjoyed the book and his letters. I think about him every day and cannot believe he has been dead for over 20 years.

Dr John Cameron, St Andrews.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By M. Woodman on 15 April 2012
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
A delightful book whose 460 pages are so readable as to be all to quickly turned but so enjoyable that they will surely be revisited. The letters published here are immensely varied: at times awfully sad, at others filled with joy; some funny enough to raise an out-loud laugh, others plain and businesslike. Taken in all, they confound the perception of Feynman as a bit of a joker who was not a keen letter writer - though he could sometimes be slow to reply.

Michelle Feynman, his daughter, has done an excellent job of collating the letters, and some other papers, within significant time frames and of providing context with the briefest possible explanatory notes.

The title refers to Feynman's views on teaching methods for high school students, as exemplified in his disagreement with Michelle's teacher over the acceptability and merits of said child's occasionally inventive approach to algebra problems. It does also encapsulate perfectly the man's creative and inquisitive persistence, no matter what the task in hand: persistence so productive when directed at academic enquiry, so inspiring in the lecture room, but so baffling when let loose within the realms of political or administrative convention.

The most enjoyable thing about reading these letters is the sheer niceness that they convey, to friends or family, of course, but also (and especially) when replying to letters from people he had never met: people uncertain of their capabilities, ambitions or understanding. That a man of such genius could take time to write long responses to questions from a child, a struggling teacher, even an outright crank, is a cause of fresh amazement every time it happens.

It shouldn't be, of course.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 53 reviews
62 of 62 people found the following review helpful
The Life and Personality of a Complex and Decent Man 25 Aug. 2005
By Dave Tolle - Published on
Format: Hardcover
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.
47 of 47 people found the following review helpful
a great complement to the other Feynman books 22 Mar. 2009
By Nikitas Liogkas - Published on
Format: Paperback
Before reading this book, I had read both the classic "Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman", and its sequel, "What Do You Care What Other People Think?". In my opinion, all three books are well worth reading, but, interestingly, for different reasons each.

The first book contains several intriguing stories, mainly from Feynman's personal life, which are entertaining in their own right, but also provide insight into the personality of this unique individual. Highly recommended! The second book starts off in a similar spirit, but concludes with a more serious discussion of the Challenger accident investigation. Not as entertaining, but still interesting.

This book is simply a collection of letters to and from Feynman throughout his lifetime. As such, some of the letters, lacking background knowledge, can feel a bit out of place at times. However, having a general framework of reference from the other two books, I found this one much more revealing in details about Feynman's character than any of the two other books. However, I'm not sure how much I would have gotten out of it if this had been my first Feynman book. Thus, I would strongly recommend you read at least "Surely You're Joking" before you pick this one up.

Overall, the value of this book lies in bringing together different stories we have read about in the two other books, giving us a warm and fuzzy feeling of closure. Many of the letters describe the behind-the-scenes personal details missing from the somewhat neutral story descriptions in the first two books, thereby completing the picture of this "curious character".
79 of 88 people found the following review helpful
Feynman, Letters, I'm in Heaven 11 April 2005
By Joseph Stembler - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I am an avid reader of letters written by the famous and intelligent--TH Jefferson, Lincoln, Ronald Reagan, Einstein, JRR Tolkien, Mozart--to name a few. If you wish to get to know a person, read their letters, I say.

I am also a fan of Richard Feynman. I voraciously read "Surely Your Joking Mr. Feynman!" and "What do You Care What Other People Think?".

So, when my friend accidentally found "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From The Beaten Track: The Letters Of Richard P. Feynman" at Borders bookstore, my eyes opened wide and my heart skipped a beat! Had someone edited a new book of collected letters written by Feynman himself? My two favorite mediums--Letters and Feynmanisms--in one wonderful book.

Thank the editors! They have amassed a treasure indeed. Here you will be able to get to know with even greater depth, the man that is Richard Feynman. A must have for all Feynman lovers across the globe!
48 of 52 people found the following review helpful
The most personal book about a great human being 14 April 2005
By M. Waldhoer - Published on
Format: Hardcover
I have read everything out there that has ever been published from/about Richard Feynman.

This book consisting of letters to and from this sharp, funny, sensistive and most curious human being is yet the most personal. Thank you, Michelle Feynman, for reading through mountains of paperwork and putting together such a wonderful book. These letters make you wonder, think, sometimes even cry -but most of all, laugh!!!
21 of 22 people found the following review helpful
Perfectly reasonable MOTIVATION! 6 May 2005
By Javier Álvarez - Published on
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
With this new book collecting Richard Feynman's correspondence, you won't only better know about a Nobel laureate physicist, but you will be able to appreciate the deepest insight, knowledge and inspiration of an honest man. From his first beloved wife or the Manhattan project to motivation and good understanding of Physics. I have loved Feynman since I first read one of R. Leighton books when I was a teenager, he inspired and encouraged me a lot and since I had a great interest in Science I eventually fell in love with Physics, which I'm studying know, thanks to him. Besides, his wise guide helped me out to understand life better and cope with difficulties, mostly tackling problems à-la Feynman. This book is worth reading and it's quite big with hardcover so the price is quite great!

Everybody interested in Feynman biography and character cannot miss this chance to meet him at his most personal book for which we all should thank his daughter Michelle Feynman. THANK YOU VERY MUCH FOR MAKING THE WORLD WISER ABOUT A GREAT SCIENTIST AND HUMAN BEING.
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