Saturday, 17 October 2015

The Quotable Feynman - Richard Feynman (Ed. Michelle Feynman) ***

If you asked people who did physics degrees in my generation - or who were working physicists for that matter - to name their favourite physicist, while there might have been a few dissenters going for, say, Fred Hoyle, the vast bulk would say Richard Feynman. (I honestly don't know if it's the same for young physicists now - it would be interesting to find out.) The reason I mention Hoyle is that the two shared a lot of characteristics. Neither of them sounded like a physicist. Both were, to a degree, iconoclastic. And both came up with delightful quotes. So given all that, it should be no surprise that we get here a collection of Feynman's best snippets, edited by his daughter Michelle.
This isn't the first book of this kind - there was also The Ultimate Quotable Einstein, and like Einstein, Feynman was both a brilliant physicist who was able to see the world differently and a master of the witty remark, often pithy and pungent, each managing to get to the heart of their particular areas of science in a few words. I don't suppose this book will do as well as the Einstein one because Feynman is less well known to the public in general - but in the physics community it will be lapped up.
The collection was certainly fun to dip into, and with sections on everything from nature to philosophy and humour to war it has plenty of range. However, I have a couple of problems with this as a book. The first is that this kind of thing can become a hagiography, and having prefaces by cellist Yo Yo Ma and TV scientist Brian Cox made it seem even more so that this was the case. In a sense, a daughter is not necessarily the best person to edit a collection like this. Because the book cried out for a section labelled 'Things he got wrong'. Feynman himself would have cheerfully admitted that this a major route to getting to better answers and there are bound to be some quotes that were heartily adrift from later developments, whether in his own field or others.
My other issue is quite what to do with the book as a reader. I have made the attempt to read it through for this review, but frankly, even with a man of Feynman's wit, there are only so many snippets out of context that you can read without getting bored. I think it would have been better to have stripped out all but the best quotes and given each a page of context to make it more interesting. Given the volume as it is, the main use I would have thought it had was a dictionary of quotations. I often dig out the Oxford Dictionary of Scientific Quotations when writing, and it's poor on Feynman (just 7 entries) - so having another 500 is, in theory, excellent.
I say 'in theory' because the publishers have made an attempt to shoot themselves in the foot. In the front material they comment 'Requests for permission to reproduce material from this work should be sent to Permissions, Princeton University Press.' (I wonder if I should have asked permission to reproduce that?) But that takes away about the only real point of having the book. In practice, I don't think they can get away with this on anything other than items that aren't themselves quotes from other books, TV appearances etc, such as personal letters and notes, as quoting publicly available sources has long been accepted without permission. But even so it leaves a bad taste in the mouth. Poor move, Princeton University Press.
Review by Brian Clegg


  1. Excellent review. I really like the idea of taking a quote and then spending a page or three putting it into a proper context. I can't think of anyine I'd rather have do that than you Brian. Put it on the list!