Saturday, February 18, 2006

The Letters of Richard P. Feynman

The letters of Richard Feynman, Compiled and Edited by Michelle Feynman

Richard Feynman is one of a very small group of physicists who have achieved great public fame (some might say cult status). Feynman’s fame comes from several sources: Academic - like his involvement with the Manhattan project, his Nobel Prize winning work on Quantum Electrodynamics (and the diagrams which bear his name), His later work on the Quark theories of matter - and Popular - like his famously complex "Lectures on Physics" series and his autobiographical books of tales.

However, Feynman himself states that he didn’t speak writable English – his books are generally based on recordings of his lectures or conversations, transcribed and heavily edited. So, one might wonder how well he wrote when he was writing directly. Ms Feynman admits that she had the same concerns when she began reading her father’s letters – fortunately, we are pleased to discover, that Feynman’s letters, beyond being generally well written capture the Feynman character.

The first (and earliest) letters in this collection are from his time as a graduate student at Princeton in the early 40’s. They demonstrate early examples of his famous wit. After receiving his PhD in 1942, Feynman moves to Los Alamos with his new bride to begin his work on the Manhattan project.

Feynman’s letters are alternately (and often simultaneously) funny, inspirational, touching and heart-wrenching. The letters from Los Alamos cover, among the classic Feynman tales of safecracking and (mis)adventures, is the heartbreaking tale of his first marriage to Arline. While Feynman toils away at Los Alamos, Arline lives in a nearby sanatorium, where she slowly dies of tuberculosis. This process reveals another side of Feynman’s character. His scientific nature shines through as he struggles to understand the disease through correspondence with doctors, drug companies and Arline herself, often at the expense of more human reactions. While he often seems coldly analytical, he just as often writes to Arline with warmth and care. The most emotional letter is written to her a year after her death.

After the war, Feynman’s letters follow him around the United States – first to Ithaca where he works at Cornell and then to Cal Tech when he spends the rest of his career. While he was at Caltech, he worked on hundreds of different things – from Quantum Electrodynamics (for which he won the 1965 Nobel prize, jointly with Schwinger and Tomonaga) and his theories of Quarks and Partons, to advising filmmakers on physics and reviewing science texts for the California school board.

At Caltech, he also gave his famous undergraduate lectures which are immortalized on recordings and in the famous texts. Widely adopted and quickly disused as being too hard for an introductory course, the three distinctive white spines with red text are visible on the shelves of many physics graduate students, post-docs and faculty!

He came to the public eye in a variety of ways – he appeared in a large number of physics documentaries, his autobiographical anecdotes were read by many and many people saw his startling "frozen O-ring" demonstration as he sat on the Challenger accident review commission.

From the letters we can see his characteristic humor – usually aimed at his own shortcomings, his wit and charm, his love of physics – evidenced by the delight he takes in explaining things to people and his compassion – Feynman is always willing to give advice to everyone who writes to him – from crackpots to the exasperated parents of aspiring physicists.

As a graduate student in physics, I am most touched by the advice Feynman gives to these students. He counsels them to "discuss physics with [interested friends] … [once you] are able to explain things in your own words, so that they are led to understand things from what you say, you are OK." He is saying, quite rightly, that a student needs to understand things to the point where he can explain, rather than just regurgitate, what he is learning to succeed.

Feynman also suggests to several students that they pursue the things they love – to focus on what’s immediately important to their passions and worry about catching up on the rest of stuff when they need it. He also recommends that they learn physics on their own by studying books. His advice has helped me to reconsider the ways I study and think about physics – making me a better student!

Michelle Feynman was adopted by Richard and his third wife, Gweneth in 1968. Despite growing up with such a scientist father (and brother), she drifted away from science during school – in some part because teachers took exception to her father’s quick and dirty methods of solving math and science problems.

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