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He knew O-rings ... and people

One-of-a-kind scientist put his feelings and his humor in the mail

By Jim Bencivenga / April 12, 2005



Did you, like millions of other students, lead a life of quiet desperation in the classrooms of intellectually gifted math and physics teachers? So many of them seemed impersonal, aloof, more than a little alien if you were honest - especially when it came time to bring your report card home.

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I defy you to hold that opinion of Richard Feynman. Twice, I put this collection of his letters down to compose myself as I read the achingly heartbreaking exchanges between him and his first wife, Arline. She would die in a tuberculosis sanitarium in Albuquerque, N.M., while he worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos, N.M., as a young man.

His last letter to her, dated two years after her death, includes a note from the editor (his adopted daughter by a later marriage): "Well worn - much more than others ... as though he reread it often."

"Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman" makes palpable the legend that surrounds this Nobel laureate and Caltech physics professor nonpareil. His correspondence affords the intimate yet respectful conversation with a genius usually reserved for a close friend or member of the family.

The collection follows his life chronologically. It starts with a letter to his mother in 1939 while he was a student at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. It lingers over his courtship and marriage to his first wife. There are glimpses of budding genius as he acquires a PhD in physics at Princeton, then goes off to work on the Manhattan Project at the age of 24.

We read how he puts down roots at the California Institute of Technology, marries Gweneth, the Englishwoman he hired as a housekeeper who bore him a son and adopted Michelle with him. Extensive coverage of reactions to the Nobel Prize in Physics 1965, plus his work with the National Academy of Sciences, shows a human side to this academic giant, who two years before his passing in 1988 demonstrated on national TV that faulty

O-rings caused the Challenger disaster.

Why read a collection of letters about someone rather than that person's autobiography? Well, as Feynman would probably quip: He didn't write an autobiography.

A letter involves itself with the immediacy of circumstances. There is less dodging, more straight telling, but ample room for fun and self-mocking. In an ably edited collection of letters - like this one - the scenery, the locale, the greater and lesser events, the personages strutting in and out of Feynman's experience readily front for the texture of a time as well as a life.

Here's a taste of but two.

Congratulations poured in when he won the Nobel. Feynman was invited by dignitaries from Stockholm University to attend "our celebration during which you will be dubbed a knight of the Order of the ever Smiling and Jumping Frog...."

His reply: "Thank you very much for your letter of congratulations. I shall be most happy to become a knight of the Order of the ever Smiling and Jumping Frogs. I have been that way ever since I was advised that I had won the Nobel Prize in Physics."

In 1975 a perfect stranger wrote to him: "I've fallen in love with you from seeing you on 'Nova' /... You are a feyn-man/ Are there lots of physicists with fans?/ You have one!"

Feynman: "I am now unique - a physicist with a fan who has fallen in love with him from seeing him on TV.... I need no longer be jealous of movie stars. Your fan-nee, (or whatever you call it - the whole business is new to me)."

In both, he pricks the temptation to inflate himself - a classroom trait that endeared him to thousands of students.

If you have never read anything by this giant of science try "Six Easy Pieces" (Basic Books), the written adaptation of six lectures he gave to freshman at Caltech in 1962-63. The Modern Library lists it as one of the 100 best works of nonfiction of the 20th century. He blends wit, insight, and genius in explaining the conservation of energy, the motion of atoms, the theory of gravitation, quantum behavior, and the laws of motion-physics made accessible to the general reader.

Feynman's scientific contributions and written legacy extend well beyond these letters. We can be grateful that his career took place before e-mail.

Jim Bencivenga is community producer for the Monitor's csmonitor.com

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