62 of 62 people found the following review helpful
on August 25, 2005
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
on March 22, 2009
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".
78 of 87 people found the following review helpful
on April 11, 2005
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
on April 14, 2005
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
on May 5, 2005
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.
14 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on January 26, 2007
My main motivation for reading "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations" was to gain further insight into Feynman's personality and value system by the direct and reliable method of studying verbatim his interactions with other people. He has been so thoroughly enshrined (perhaps not unwillingly) as a brilliant, difficult, puckish character that I couldn't help being a bit puzzled about what he was "really" like.
In assembling this volume, Feynman's daughter Michelle has selected a variety of correspondence ranging from professional relations with colleagues to private exchanges with friends and, occasionally, complete strangers. I think it is in the latter case that we learn the most about Feynman. He was willing to pay close attention not only to people who admired him, but also to those who offered crazy ideas, or unfair criticism, or even ad-hominem invective. Well after becoming a Nobel prize winner, he continued to compose detailed explanations for, and invite replies from, people who could try anyone's patience. As an experienced debater-by-correspondence, he had a talent for cutting to the quick of a dispute and, while remaining perfectly courteous, nudging the contender into a corner from which escape was impossible short of offering something new or conceding the point. Whether arguing scientifically, graciously acknowledging praise, or simply trying to shake off a persistent bore, Feynman never failed to be insightful and thought-provoking.
The early part of the book covers Feynman's relationship with his first wife Arline, who died of tuberculosis in an Albuquerque sanatorium while he worked on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos. His decision to marry Arline, regardless of her uncertain health and against the advice of friends and relatives, speaks to the strength and depth of his commitment. Many extremely personal letters are included which illuminate the couple's mutual devotion as well as his loving acceptance of the frustration and uncertainty forced on both of them by the relentlessly worsening disease.
Feynman's attitude toward religion is revealed in several places, particularly during a 1959 television interview. In addition to critiquing the widespread notion that morality is tied to piety, he says quite succinctly that "The religious theory of the world ...doesn't fit with what you see."
In a number of letters Feynman explains the prickly positions on academic conventions and courtesies that helped to make him a legendary outsider. A representative example was his refusal to provide evaluations of former students and colleagues when they were already at the requesting institution. He essentially said: Look here, this person is working right under your nose and you know more about him or her than I do, so decide for yourself!
There are a few instances where an alert editor could have caught misreadings, for example "Serbeis" for the [Robert] Serbers on page 76, and "1023" for ten to the 23rd power on page 174. All in all, this collection constitutes a fascinating and skillfully-produced window into one of the world's most intriguing minds.
16 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on June 2, 2009
My wife recently gave me the audio version of this book (on CD). I never had listened to an audio book before, but with my background in science (medicine), I gave it a try, having read the various short autobiographies by Feynman. First, though, I converted the CD files to MP3 files in my iTunes program, then listened to the entire book over several weeks in my car on the way to and from work. (All of the 8 CDs can be fitted onto a 2GB Nano iPod, thus minimizing the inconvenience of having to swap out discs while listening.)
I was very surprised. The book is voiced by Richard Poe (doing all of Feynman's words) and Johanna Parker, who plays the voices of various correspondents, male or female. Richard Poe comes across as no-nonsense, crusty, harrumphing sort of person, while Johanna Parker is alternately devotional (Feynman's first wife) or takes on various other personas (an Indian undergraduate science student, a grade school boy, a British correspondent), all inflected appropriately.
The book takes us through the years of Feynman's professional career, from graduate studies to his work for the Shuttle disaster commission in 1986, shortly before his death from an abdominal tumor. Unfortunately, there are large gaps in the collection, probably a result of the inability to locate crucial letters for various reasons, and there is virtually nothing from Feynman's last wife (and nothing from his second wife, from a brief marriage Feynman would have preferred to forget).
Aside from this, the recording was very compelling. One could hear the wisdom of this great (if pompous) scientist, who repeatedly argued for a rational approach to problem solving. It was like hearing a well-regarded counselor in my car, a father figure (who himself was a proud father). The words are not too difficult for people without science backgrounds. You hear his views on promoting women in science, raising children, Greek archeology. Sometimes his responses are all too terse, just one sentence, but these convey how much he wanted to get right to the point.
Both Poe and Parker are very engaging, and after several hours' listening, the story is over all too quickly. So, you play it again.
Well worth listening to for anyone who wants to be inspired to take the most direct and logical way to sort through life's problems.
11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on December 28, 2005
As an avid Feynman fan, I was excited when I saw this volume appear in bookstores earlier this year. I was not disappointed.
Michelle Feynman, the adopted daughter of the esteemed scientist/safe-cracker/bongo-player/raconteur Richard Feynman, has done a truly outstanding job of compiling the most compelling of her father's communications. These letters span a lifetime, from Feynman's undergraduate days through his service on the Congressional committee investigating negligence in the Challenger disaster.
What really shines through in all of Feynman's correspondence is his zest for life, his helpful and infinitely curious nature, and his penchant for being quite the cut-up despite being one of the hardest-working physists of his era.
If you have enjoyed reading or listening to other volumes of Feynman's exploits; if you have only approached him as a student of physics; even if you've never heard of the guy, I heartily recommend this book for a few hours of pleasurable reading which will give you insight into the mind of a great thinker and a very compassionate and wacky human being.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on September 19, 2005
I must admit, as much as I have enjoyed reading previous books about the "most curious character", I wasn't certain I would enjoy reading a collection of his letters nearly as much as I enjoyed stories of his exploits and other adventures. How wrong I was; I loved reading through this book!
While previous books such as "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman" are marvelous introductions to the complex and fascinating man Feynman was, I felt that after I read through these correspondences, I had been introduced to him in a far deeper, more profound way. The letters to his first wife, as she is slowly dying of TB, are touching, poignant, and, at time, funny. They are a beautiful, intimate glimpse into the soul of a man who possessed one of the greatest thinking minds of the past two hundred years.
The collection spans the life and career of Richard Feynman, from Los Alamos to the "Challenger" Hearings, one of the last things he was able to do before he died. Many of the letters are responses to young people asking for educational and vocational advice--here you see the true teacher come through in Feynman's words. "Follow you curiosity and your passion!", would be a fair paraphrase of much his advice. "And ignore what others want you to do." Wise counsel from a man who lived his life in just such a way.
I would recommend highly this treasure, lovingly edited by Feynman's daughter, Michelle.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
Freeman Dyson writing in 'The New York Review of Books' considers Feynmann to be along with Einstein and Hawking, one of the three legendary physicists of the twentieth century.He writes," The public made him into an icon because he was not only a great scientist and a great clown but also a great human being and a guide in time of trouble. Other Feynman books have portrayed him as a scientific wizard and as a storyteller. This collection of letters shows us for the first time the son caring for his father and mother, the father caring for his wife and children, the teacher caring for his students, the writer replying to people throughout the world who wrote to him about their problems and received his full and undivided attention."
This book of letters spans the entire period of his career from his Los Alamos days to his work as the most perspicacious investigator of the 'Challenger disaster'.
It shows how many- sided, innovative, creative and flexible he could be in responding humanely in so many different kinds of situations.
It adds a major dimension to the appreciative picture of him his many readers and students have.