The Letters of Richard P. Feynman The daughter of Richard Feynman talks about a new book of his collected letters.
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The Letters of Richard P. Feynman

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The Letters of Richard P. Feynman

The Letters of Richard P. Feynman

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IRA FLATOW, host:

And now we're going to switch gears, and up next we're going to talk about a different kind of Richard Feynman. You've probably--know about Richard Feynman. He's one of the true geniuses and iconoclasts of the 20th century. From rather humble beginnings in Far Rockaway, New York, he went on to earn his PhD at Princeton, teaches at Cornell and Caltech. He worked on the Manhattan Project to develop the atom bomb. He won a Nobel Prize in 1965 for quantum physics.

But it wasn't all physics for Feynman. You may not know this, but he was multifaceted. He was a bongo player, a practical joker, an artist, a safecracker, a gifted storyteller. He had a reputation for not suffering fools lightly. And now a new book of Feynman's collected letters shows us a side of Feynman that we really may not have seen before, a more tender side, perhaps. Joining me now to talk about it is his daughter, Michelle Feynman. She is the editor of this new book of collected papers and letters, called "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman." She joins us from the studios of WCAI in Woods Hole, Massachusetts.

Thank you for being with us.

Ms. MICHELLE FEYNMAN (Editor, "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track"): Thank you for having me.

FLATOW: Why is this collection of letters different from all the other Feynman books that have been out? And he's written so many himself.

Ms. FEYNMAN: Well, these letters are him, without--his words, without a filter. Most of the other works were given first either as a lecture or stories that he told. And, I mean, even "Surely You're Joking" and "What Do You Care What Other People Think?" which are fantastic books and really have a feeling of his speaking style--they've been edited...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: ...quite a bit, and these letters haven't. This is what he wanted to write, and so they're published in their entirety.

FLATOW: Yeah. And as I said before, as you read--go through these letters--we know that his reputation--he has this reputation for not suffering fools, but the softer side of him comes out. Do you have a letter in particular that might illustrate that, one of your favorites?

Ms. FEYNMAN: Oh, gosh...

FLATOW: Well, let me put it--I may have caught you off guard there.

Ms. FEYNMAN: OK.

FLATOW: Let me re...

Ms. FEYNMAN: There are so many of my favorites.

FLATOW: Let me read--that was unfair. Let me rephrase it. There are examples of letters that he even takes time to write to people. You know, celebrities don't usually write to the average folks who write them letters. and he takes time to answer these people.

Ms. FEYNMAN: Right. I mean, I think one of the things that struck me, reading these letters, is the people who complain to him. And to say, you know, `I think what you've said, you know, was awful,' or, you know, they kind of take him to task a little bit. He answers so nicely and with so much consideration that I just--I didn't expect that.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: Because as you say, you know, he had a reputation for not suffering fools gladly, and I think that these letters kind of show an opposite side of him.

FLATOW: And you say--speaking of the opposite side, you have a quote in an article in The New York Times saying that editing this book and hearing from his former colleagues talk about him, made something very clear. You say, "I don't think any of us really knew the same person."

Ms. FEYNMAN: Right.

FLATOW: Was he different to everybody else? Or was--you know, people wouldn't--you know, if you got a group of people around to talk about him, you'd say, `Gee, we're not all talking about the same person'?

Ms. FEYNMAN: Well, I mean, I think he was such a multifaceted individual that although his personality was very much the same--you know, he was always larger than life and full of good fun and humor. That, I think, everybody got who met him.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: But, you know, maybe he would talk about drumming or cracking safes or, you know, deciphering Mayan or physics or, you know--I mean, there's a line from this book where he says to someone, `You cannot develop a personality with physics alone. The rest of your life must be worked in.' And I think that's just him, you know?

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: That describes his personality.

FLATOW: Yeah. It's interesting. And speaking of the softer side of him, there's a letter that he wrote to his deceased wife. It's very interesting. You want to read part of that, that...

Ms. FEYNMAN: Yes. Yes.

FLATOW: Go ahead, please.

Ms. FEYNMAN: This letter was written to his first wife. They met when they were 14. She was diagnosed with tuberculosis while they were engaged, and spent the rest of her days in a sanitarium. And because of her illness, they were not able to have much of a physical relationship at all, because everybody was very concerned that he would come down with tuberculosis himself. And then this letter, he writes--he wrote to her 18 months after she died, and I'll read a little part of it.

(Reading) `When you were sick, you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn't have worried. Just as I told you then, there was no real need, because I loved you in so many ways, so much. And now it is clearly even more true. You can give me nothing now, yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else. But I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive. I know you will assure me that I'm foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don't want to be in my way. I'll bet that you are surprised that I don't even have a girlfriend, except you, sweetheart, after two years. But you can't help it, darling, nor can I. I don't understand it, for I have met many girls, and very nice ones, and I don't want to remain alone, but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real. My darling wife, I do adore you. I love my wife. My wife is dead. Rich. P.S.: Please excuse my not mailing this, but I don't know your new address.'

FLATOW: Oh, interesting. Even--the humor is there, even in the sorrow.

Ms. FEYNMAN: Yes.

FLATOW: And you would--and as I say, this is not the side of Richard Feynman that a lot of people would have thought to hear a letter written like this. You--another letter--he receives a letter--I especially like this one. He has written on the subject of physics and poets.

Ms. FEYNMAN: Oh, right. Yes.

FLATOW: Yeah. And he receives a letter from a Mrs. Robert Weiner and she wrote him because she felt that he had complained that modern poets showed no interest in modern physics. So maybe you ought to read us part of that letter he sends back to her.

Ms. FEYNMAN: (Reading) `The point of my remarks about poets was not meant to be a complaint that modern poets show no interest in modern physics, but that they show no emotional appreciation for those aspects of nature that have been revealed in the last 400 years. In the crassness of our time, so much lamented is a crassness that can be alleviated only by art, and surely not by science without art. Art and poetry can remind the mind of beauty and gradually make life more beautiful. My lament was that a kind of intense beauty that I see given to me by science is seen by so few others, by few poets and, therefore, by even fewer more ordinary people. On the other hand, you might be right, for I have read very little. But at least the example you enclosed only confirms my view, for a modern poet is directly confessing not understanding the emotional value of knowledge of nature. Sincerely yours, Richard P. Feynman.'

FLATOW: What's interesting, I find, about this letter on a couple of different levels is that he actually wrote whole books about the beauty that he sees in nature that other people can't see because they don't understand the physics or the mathematics of a flower, for example.

Ms. FEYNMAN: Right.

FLATOW: And--but the contradiction here to me, also, is that he did not like philosophy. He could see an artist's point of view, but he didn't believe very much in philosophers, did he?

Ms. FEYNMAN: No, and that reminds me--you know, he educated my brother and I with this idea that we could do whatever we wanted and we could be whatever we wanted, and so at the end of going to MIT, when my brother had taken all these classes and things that interested him, as well as technical subjects, and he ended up getting his degree in philosophy, which, you know, I mean, just made my dad laugh, you know?

FLATOW: He...

Ms. FEYNMAN: But he didn't really give much credence to philosophy. You're right.

FLATOW: Yeah. Of course he was--obviously, you know, outside of scientific circles, people really didn't know of his brilliance until the day that he was on the shuttle committee where he dunked that O-ring into the ice water and showed how brittle it was. Did that change life for him at all, do you know, as far as being in the public eye or, you know, saying, `Look, you know, things are not this difficult; if you have a little common sense, you just dunk the rubber in the cold water and see if it works'?

Ms. FEYNMAN: Well, yeah, I mean, I think that was so indicative of his...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: ...brilliance as a teacher, you know. He was able to take these very, very complex problems and break them down into simple, tangible...

FLATOW: Right.

Ms. FEYNMAN: ...ideas, you know, like showing everyone with a demonstration, you know, in front of their eyes. Let's put this, you know, seal into ice water and bring it out and see what happens. So it didn't, it didn't really. But to answer your question, it didn't really change life for him afterwards. He carried on very much the same.

FLATOW: I'm talking with Michelle Feynman, the author--or editor of the letters, "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman" on TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News. I'm Ira Flatow.

What was it like growing up as the daughter of Richard? Did you feel yourself under pressure to perform all the time? Was there this pressure from having a father who was such a genius?

Ms. FEYNMAN: I didn't really feel it. You know, it could be that my brother felt it more. He was six years older and very much interested in science. And they had a very, very special, wonderful relationship, as did I, but completely different. And I think when my father realized that I didn't have the same personality, I wasn't interested so much in science, I didn't really feel any pressure, certainly not from him; maybe a little bit from teachers who had already had Carl in their class and, you know, were expecting the same brilliance.

FLATOW: (Laughs) Did either of you inherit his wacky sense of humor and practical jokes, things like that?

Ms. FEYNMAN: Gosh, I don't think so. I mean, what I'm...

FLATOW: You don't crack safes or... (Laughs)

Ms. FEYNMAN: No, I don't. But what I'm...

FLATOW: And stick things in them?

Ms. FEYNMAN: ...trying to do with my kids is, when we go camping, we had--when I was growing up, we went camping a lot, and we would go to the middle of nowhere. And if there was a fork in the road, we would take the road that looked the least traveled and would take us to, you know, the middle of nowhere. And so I'm trying to kind of bring my kids up with that spirit of adventure and...

FLATOW: And...

Ms. FEYNMAN: But I don't know about the practical jokes. I mean, that was just, you know...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: ...when you're in a restaurant and your father acts up, it just gets really embarrassing and, you know, you make a vow that you're never going to do that to your own kids.

FLATOW: Right. But do you also see the mystery that he saw in everything? You know, he really did see all that mystery in life.

Ms. FEYNMAN: He did.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: I mean, sometimes when my kids do simple things--you know, stirring--my father, every morning, he would stir his coffee and then tap the side of the coffee cup, and marvel at how the tone went up. And things, you know--I mean, when you--I think he really looked--I'm relating him...

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: ...and my children because I think that he looked at life through a child's eyes, in a way. I mean, he was really curious about everything. And that's really just wonderful.

FLATOW: Yeah. Yeah. What was it, the "The Joy of Knowing," "The Wonder of Knowing," the name of his book?

Ms. FEYNMAN: "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out."

FLATOW: "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out."

Ms. FEYNMAN: Yes.

FLATOW: Yeah. Because, why not find things out? What is, you know--you really can appreciate the world better if you find things out.

Ms. FEYNMAN: Right.

FLATOW: You know, so don't sit there...

Ms. FEYNMAN: And also, you know, the journey along the way.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: That was what it was about to him.

FLATOW: Before his death, did he come to grips with his life? Did he think he had a fulfilled life, or did he curse it because there was a lot more to do?

Ms. FEYNMAN: That's a good question. I mean, he was teaching up until the day before he went into the hospital.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: I mean, I think he would have enjoyed more time, certainly.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: I don't--he seemed very much at peace with it, but I know that he could've spent the time, you know, if he had more.

FLATOW: Yeah. Well, Michelle, thank you very much for taking time to be with us. And congratulations on the Feynman stamp that was issued this week.

Ms. FEYNMAN: Oh, yes, thank you.

FLATOW: Yeah.

Ms. FEYNMAN: It's very exciting, isn't it?

FLATOW: Yes, it is.

The letters of Richard P. Feynman, "Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track," edited with an introduction by Michelle Feynman. Thank you for being with us, Michelle. And we'll maybe hook up later on, talk more about your father.

Ms. FEYNMAN: All right. Thank you.

FLATOW: Take care.

We'll be back after this short break and bring on an artist and scientist. Alan Lightman will join us. Stay with us.

I'm Ira Flatow. This is TALK OF THE NATION/SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR News.

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