Skip to main content

Don’t You Have Time to Think? [Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track] – Richard Feynman ****

Richard Feynman is a unique figure in the history of science. One of the few physicists most are comfortable putting on a par with Einstein, he combined a superb intellect with a human touch. His lectures dismissed the stuffiness of academic tradition. Even the way he spoke was different. (This book contains a letter complaining that he had the temerity to say “you guys” on a TV broadcast.) If you haven’t heard a recording of Feynman lecturing, imagine how it would sound if Tony Curtis had been a physicist. Feynman has written some superb science books, but also was a great storyteller, with the best of his tales, edited by his friend Ralph Leyton recorded in the remarkable Surely you are joking, Mr Fenyman.
This book, a collection of Feynman’s letters edited by his daughter Michelle, makes a superb addition to the collected Feynman writings. If you decide to read it, don’t be put off by the first section, which is by far the worst. Many of Feynman’s early letters were during the development of the atomic bomb – because of this there was little he could write about his work, and few people could write to him. The result, though historically interesting, makes rather bland reading. But persevere and you will be greatly rewarded. After that early section it’s practically all fascinating. (The only other part that gets a bit tedious are the letters of congratulation for his Nobel Prize – I can understand why a proud daughter wants to show these off, but a dozen would have sufficed to get the point.)
There are so many good things in here. One is a demonstration of his surprising patience, responding to clearly confused writers in a self-deprecating and supportive way. There’s a wide exposure to his dismissal of status for the sake of it – refusing any honorary degrees and so forth. And there’s a chance to peek under the Feynman myth. His stories were better than reality. He enjoyed over-emphasising his own failings. His letters reveal that he had more interest in the arts, was less dismissive of culture (and even knew the language they spoke in Brazil, despite the story he told to the contrary). The real Richard Feynman can be seen so much more clearly through these letters, and any Feynman fan will be very grateful for that.
The obvious gap in the story is his second marriage. It isn’t even referred to in the linking text – if Fenynman himself hadn’t commented a couple of times about this being his third marriage, you wouldn’t have known he had more than two wives. Although you can understand why his daughter wouldn’t want to go into his second, disastrous marriage to a woman who allegedly once told him “some old bore called, but I sent him away” when Niels Bohr tried to visit Feynman. (Actually, this is a slight misquote on our part – she said that while he was out he had been invited to have dinner with “some old bore” – thanks to Peet Morris for highlighting this.) It may be that there just aren’t any letters from that period intact – but for completeness it’s a shame.
Normally we wouldn’t give a book like this more than 3 stars, because it’s only borderline popular science, but this is so good we’ve had to go for four.

Using these links earns us commission at no cost to you 
Review by Brian Clegg


Popular posts from this blog

The God Game (SF) - Danny Tobey *****

Wow. I'm not sure I've ever read a book that was quite such an adrenaline rush - certainly it has been a long time since I've read a science fiction title which has kept me wanting to get back to it and read more so fiercely. 

In some ways, what we have here is a cyber-SF equivalent of Stephen King's It. A bunch of misfit American high school students face a remarkably powerful evil adversary - though in this case, at the beginning, their foe appears to be able to transform their worlds for the better.

Rather than a supernatural evil, the students take on a rogue AI computer game that thinks it is a god - and has the powers to back its belief. Playing the game is a mix of a virtual reality adventure like Pokemon Go and a real world treasure hunt. Players can get rewards for carrying out tasks - delivering a parcel, for example, which can be used to buy favours, abilities in the game and real objects. But once you are in the game, it doesn't want to let you go and is …

Uncertainty - Kostas Kampourakis and Kevin McCain ***

This is intended as a follow-on to Stuart Firestein's two books, the excellent Ignorance and its sequel, Failure, which cut through some of the myths about the nature of science and how it's not so much about facts as about what we don't know and how we search for explanations. The authors of Uncertainty do pretty much what they set out to do in explaining the significance of uncertainty and why it can make it difficult to present scientific findings to the public, who expect black-and-white facts, not grey probabilities, which can seem to some like dithering.

However, I didn't get on awfully well with the book. A minor issue was the size - it was just too physically small to hold comfortably, which was irritating. More significantly, it felt like a magazine article that was inflated to make a book. There really was only one essential point made over and over again, with a handful of repeated examples. I want something more from a book - more context and depth - that …

Where are the chemistry popular science books?

by Brian Clegg
There has never been more emphasis on the importance of public engagement. We need both to encourage a deeper interest in science and to counter anti-scientific views that seem to go hand-in-hand with some types of politics. Getting the public interested in science both helps recruit new scientists of the future and spreads an understanding of why an area of scientific research deserves funding. Yet it is possible that chemistry lags behind the other sciences in outreach. As a science writer, and editor of this website, I believe that chemistry is under-represented in popular science. I'd like to establish if this is the case, if so why it is happening - and what can be done to change things. 

An easy straw poll is provided by the topic tags on the site. At the time of writing, there are 22 books under 'chemistry' as opposed to 97 maths, 126 biology and 182 physics. The distribution is inevitably influenced by editorial bias - but as the editor, I can confirm …