Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman Paperback – 25 Apr 2006
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A Nobel Prize-winning physicist, a loving husband and father, an enthusiastic teacher, a surprisingly accomplished bongo player, and a genius of the highest caliber---Richard P. Feynman was all these and more. Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track--collecting over forty years' worth of Feynman's letters--offers an unprecedented look at the writer and thinker whose scientific mind and lust for life made him a legend in his own time. Containing missives to and from such scientific luminaries as Victor Weisskopf, Stephen Wolfram, James Watson, and Edward Teller, as well as a remarkable selection of letters to and from fans, students, family, and people from around the world eager for Feynman's advice and counsel, Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track not only illuminates the personal relationships that underwrote the key developments in modern science, but also forms the most intimate look at Feynman yet available. Feynman was a man many felt close to but few really knew, and this collection reveals the full wisdom and private passion of a personality that captivated everyone it touched.Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track is an eloquent testimony to the virtue of approaching the world with an inquiring eye; it demonstrates the full extent of the Feynman legacy like never before. Edited and with additional commentary by his daughter Michelle, it's a must-read for Feynman fans everywhere, and for anyone seeking to better understand one of the towering figures--and defining personalities--of the twentieth century.
About the Author
Richard P. Feynman was raised in Far Rockaway, New York, and received his Ph.D. from Princeton. He held professorships at both Cornell and the California Institute of Technology. In 1965 he received the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics. He died in 1988.
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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. That compulsion to provide real understanding was the bedrock motivation of his lectures, his books, his devoted advisory work on education. As with the formal lectures, these brief notes on problems composed for individual correspondents always take a fresh look at some aspect of the subject. (Well, they certainly made me think, anyway.)
Do read this book of Feynman's letters if you have liked any of his other works, whether his lectures or lighter stories.
For a much better review than mine, one written by a physicist who knew and loved the man 'this side idolatry', read chapter 23 of Freeman Dyson's "The Scientist As Rebel", another superb book.
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.