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.
Paperback:  
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Art of Statistics - David Spiegelhalter *****

Statistics have a huge impact on us - we are bombarded with them in the news, they are essential to medical trials, fundamental science, some court cases and far more. Yet statistics is also a subject than many struggle to deal with (especially when the coupled subject of probability rears its head). Most of us just aren't equipped to understand what we're being told, or to question it when the statistics are dodgy. What David Spiegelhalter does here is provide a very thorough introductory grounding in statistics without making use of mathematical formulae*. And it's remarkable.

What will probably surprise some who have some training in statistics, particularly if (like mine) it's on the old side, is that probability doesn't come into the book until page 205. Spiegelhalter argues that as probability is the hardest aspect for us to get an intuitive feel for, this makes a lot of sense - and I think he's right. That doesn't mean that he doesn't cover all …

The Best of R. A. Lafferty (SF) – R. A. Lafferty ****

Throughout my high school years (1973–76) I carefully kept a list of all the science fiction I read. I’ve just dug it out, and it contains no fewer than 1,291 entries – almost all short stories I found in various SF magazines and multi-author anthologies. Right on the first page, the sixth item is ‘Thus We Frustrate Charlemagne’ by R. A. Lafferty, and his name appears another 32 times before the end of the list. This isn’t a peculiarity of my own tastes. Short stories were much more popular in those days than they are today, and any serious SF fan would have encountered Lafferty – a prolific writer of short fiction – in the same places I did.

But times change, and this Gollancz Masterworks volume has a quote from the Guardian on the back describing Lafferty as ‘the most important science fiction writer you’ve never heard of’. Hopefully this newly assembled collection will go some way to remedying that situation. It contains 22 short stories, mostly dating from the 1960s and 70s, each w…

David Beerling - Four Way Interview

David Beerling is the Sorby Professor of Natural Sciences, and Director of the Leverhulme Centre for Climate Change Mitigation at the University of Sheffield. His book The Emerald Planet (OUP, 2007) formed the basis of a major 3-part BBC TV series ‘How to Grow a Planet’. His latest title is Making Eden.

Why science?

I come from a non-academic background. None of my family, past or present, went to university, which may explain the following. In the final year of my degree in biological sciences at the University of Wales, Cardiff (around 1986), we all participated in a field course in mid-Wales, and I experienced an epiphany. I was undertaking a small research project on the population dynamics of bullheads (Cotus gobio), a common small freshwater fish, with a charismatic distinguished professor, and Fellow of the Royal Society in London. Under his guidance, I discovered the process of learning how nature works through the application of the scientific method. It was the most exciting t…