Letters from a hero

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What made Richard Feynman so much more than a Nobel prizewinning physicist?

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman

Basic Books: 2005. 512 pp. $26 Published by Allen Lane in the UK as Don’t You Have Time to Think? £18.99 0738206369 0713998474 | ISBN: 0-738-20636-9
Pin-up: young physicists often tack a poster of Feynman above their desks for inspiration. Credit: M. FEYNMAN AND C. FEYNMAN

Richard Feynman was a physicist's physicist. To have been a principal builder of quantum electrodynamics (QED) — joining special relativity and quantum mechanics — was accomplishment enough. But his youthful version of QED was more than that: it became a model solution for quantum field theories more generally. His eponymous diagrams became for theorists what a hammer and nails are for carpenters. In later years he struck gold again. His ‘parton’ model was not only helpful in classifying elementary particles, it also made quarks seem more real as they scattered electrons when these hit them inside protons and neutrons. His account of superfluidity in liquid helium and his model of weak interactions also had a lasting impact.

Then there were his interventions in the world beyond fundamental research. At Los Alamos, Feynman — then in his mid-20s — contributed to our understanding of fission in the core of a nuclear bomb. That work earned him enormous respect from his colleagues, especially Hans Bethe, who led the theory group at Los Alamos.

Much later in life, Feynman very publicly intervened in the analysis of the 1986 Challenger space shuttle disaster, famously dunking an O-ring into freezing water to show the disastrous effects of winter weather on this crucial part. Suddenly, it was all too clear that O-rings had failed to remain flexible enough to seal hot gases inside the booster.

Without these fundamental contributions, Feynman would not have been Feynman. But his fame within and outside the physics community exceeds greatly that of other Nobel prizewinners. Even Bethe — who won the 1967 Nobel Prize in Physics for figuring out why the Sun shines, and who powerfully opposed the arms race — does not have the hero status of Feynman. Young physicists regularly tack a poster of Feynman above their desks. If there are posters of other Nobel prizewinners on sale, I haven't seen them.

Except, of course, for Albert Einstein. Although Einstein's iconic status extends far beyond the physics world in ways that Feynman's does not, there are similarities in the way their public personae have been mythologized. To a certain degree, Einstein has been reinvented by each generation, but he has come to stand for the isolated genius, the outsider who helped to propel the century into modernity. Just about every modern poet wrote about Einstein. Artists, architects and musicians used him as a muse. Many still do, a century after his miracle year of 1905. And yet, since the early 1960s, generations of science students have held Feynman, not Einstein, as their model and guiding star.

Why? Perhaps because Feynman has come to stand for a kind of rough-edged counterweight of reason to tradition and pomposity. Here was a truth-teller with a Brooklyn accent, an unaffected clear thinker who would, in the rigor of his intuitions and calculations, be unmoved by social niceties. Although Einstein spent more than two decades in the United States, often plunging himself into the politics of disarmament and anti-McCarthyism, he never lost his European identity. Feynman, by contrast, took pride in his Runyonesque Americanness, in his pragmatism, in his indifference to title, scholarly learning and unearned awards.

In a letter rejecting an honorary degree, Feynman wrote: “I remember the work I did to get a real degree at Princeton and the guys on the same platform receiving honorary degrees without work — and felt an ‘honorary degree’ was a debasement of a ‘degree which confirms certain work that has been accomplished’.” He swore then and there he would not accept such undeserved celebration were he to be offered an honorary degree again.

Michelle Feynman, Richard's daughter, has edited a remarkable set of letters (including the above) that provide us with a much clearer view of the non-physicist Feynman. This is not the Feynman analysing liquid helium, but the Feynman who grappled with his increasing fame, his relation to other physicists, his family and, most movingly, with his first wife, Arline, who died of tuberculosis in June 1945.

The letters to his wife, clear and loving, culminate in one written after her death: “It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote you — almost two years but I know you'll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing... I'll bet that you are surprised that I don't even have a girlfriend... after two years... 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.”

Eventually Feynman remarried, had children, enjoyed people and ideas, and most of all delighted in physics. But there is something a bit muted in the later letters, especially the more intimate ones. Much of Feynman's passionate engagement flowed through his physics. This comes across remarkably well in the letters Michelle Feynman has chosen — in his enthusiastic responses to friends, colleagues, students and physics hobbyists. He advised, cajoled and encouraged: Try this, think about that, have courage in your ideas, think for yourself.

Occasionally, Feynman's passion for physics — for control over a world he imagined he could create entirely by himself — slid into a disdain toward everything non-scientific. In one exchange, he pronounced dismissively on poetry and in particular on poets' insufficient appreciation of physicists' vision of the world: “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.”

Although Feynman's physics at times resembles the physics of the young Einstein, his presence in the world is very different. Einstein never lost his fascination for philosophy, for Kant or for his near-contemporary, Poincaré. Feynman found philosophers nothing but a burden, a vulture-like presence that swooped in when strong ideas were dying. And while Einstein came to believe that physical reality lay deep in mathematical physics, Feynman never gave up hoping for a physics driven, at bottom, by an almost tactile intuition.

Much of Einstein's life found him cast and self-cast as an oracle. Feynman preferred the persona of a fast-draw street-smart kid. Yet beyond these striking differences, both Einstein and Feynman found ways to hold their own, fiercely maintaining their positions as individuals in a time when physics and fame, as never before, pressed them to assume their place in teams and groups.

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Galison, P. Letters from a hero. Nature 436, 329–330 (2005) doi:10.1038/436329a

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