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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.
Review by Brian Clegg


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