Finding out about someone by reading their correspondence is a fundamentally different thing than reading their biography. Letters offer both more intimacy with the subject and at the same time a crucial distance--the exact distance the letter-writer intended from the people to whom he was writing. In Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, Michelle Feynman collects her famous father's letters to reveal a warm, honest man with high expectations for himself, his loved ones, and the human race. Long before Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize, he was a smart, skinny graduate student at Princeton, writing letters to his mother and relating the mundane details of college life. "Dear Mom.... The raincoat came O.K. It is very nice," he writes. By the time he finished his Ph.D., Feynman had fallen for Arline Greenbaum, who had already been diagnosed with tuberculosis. Their tragically short marriage is set in letters against Feynman's first job--working on the atomic bomb project at Los Alamos, New Mexico.
Even while working on top secret physics, Feynman was an enthusiastic correspondent, jumping eagerly at the chance to encourage a young scientist, correct a public misperception, or tell a goofy joke to his family. Self-effacing, charmingly down to earth, and occasionally cranky, these letters cover Feynman's entire career, although in the fits and starts one would expect from a collection such as this. His own words to students, spouses, daughters, and fellow scientists reveal Feynman's brilliance far more effectively than any biographical lens ever could. --Therese Littleton