Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman has been one of my heroes, ever since the end of my freshman year at Harvard. After my last final exam, but before I headed home for the summer, I was able to sit in the beautiful Lowell House library, without any obligations, and just read chapters from his wonderful Lectures on Physics. After that there wasn’t much doubt in my mind about what I wanted to do with my life.

There’s a lot to say about Feynman, but I will restrict myself for now to a couple rather recent items which give a picture of the character of this remarkable man. First, there is this 1981 BBC Interview, recently released to the web, where you can see him briefly discuss a few of the things that were important to him.

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Secondly, if you haven’t read Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track, the collection of his letters edited by his daughter Michelle Feynman that was published in 2005, you owe it to yourself to do so. I was skeptical at first that a book of letters, even those of Feynman, could be very interesting, but I wound up reading every word.

Let me just give you one example of a pair of letters from 1964:

Dear Professor Feynman,

Dr Marvin Chester is presently under consideration for promotion to the Associate Professorship in our department. I would be very grateful for a letter from you evaluating his stature as a physicist. May I thank you in advance for your cooperation in this matter.

Sincerely,
D.S Saxon
Chairman
Dick: Sorry to bother you, but we really need this sort of thing.
David S.

Dr. D.S. Saxon, Chairman
Department of Physics
University of California, Los Angeles
Los Angeles, California

Dear David:

This is in answer to your request for a letter evaluating Dr. Marvin Chester’s research contributions and his stature as a physicist.

What’s the matter with you fellows, he has been right there the past few years–can’t you “evaluate” him best yourself? I can’t do much better than the first time you asked me, a few years ago when he was working here, because I haven’t followed his research in detail. At that time, I was very much impressed with his originality, his ablity to carry a theoretical argument to its practical, experimental conclusions, and to design and perform the key experiments. Rarely have I met that combination in such good balance in a student. Was I wrong? How has he been making out?

Sincerely yours,
R.P. Feynman

The above letter stands out in the files of recommendations. After this time, any request for a recommendation by the facility where the scientist was working was refused.

Edit: In the comments below, Shimon Schocken recommends Feynman’s “QED.” I thought of this book after finishing this post. It’s an amazing work. In it, Feynman gives a popular account (you don’t need any physics background to follow it) of his theory of quantum electrodynamics, for which he won the Nobel Prize. But it’s a popular account that makes no compromises in its scientific accuracy. The other books recommended in the comments (“Six Easy Pieces” and “Surely You’re Joking”) are also definitely great books, but “QED” is somehow often overlooked, even though it is the book that Feynman himself recommended to those interested in his work.

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9 Responses to “Richard Feynman”

  1. Archana Raghuram Says:

    Nice post. Never heard of Richard Feynman until I read your post. Just looked him up in Wikipedia. I should check out his “Lectures on Physics.”. I hope it is available in India.

  2. Ramji Says:

    For a layman interested in his lectures on physics, Six Easy Pieces is a very good book. Six of his most basic lectures covering atoms, matter, energy, gravitation and an introduction to quantum mechanics

    Six Not-So-Easy Pieces is great too- more challenging, but rewarding.

    I love Feynman’s writing/lecturing style.

  3. The Necromancer Says:

    Feynman is a wonderful figure. That letter is hilarious. Didn’t he also famously quip “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.” Seems like something he would say, in any event. Add to that his obsession with Mongolian throat singing (as documented on the PBS show Nova many moons ago…), and the picture of a perfectly eccentric outsider-physicist emerges. Most people should at least recognize him from the investigation into the space shuttle Challenger explosion — his exposition of the failure of the “O-ring” is a fairly famous moment in the annals of public science. Nice post.

  4. Lloyd Budd Says:

    Feynman is also one of my heroes and reading his autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! influenced me to pursue physics before I discovered computer science.

  5. Shimon Schocken Says:

    There are many good books by and about Richard Feynman. I’d like to recommend one that, I think, is less popular than others: “QED”, standing for Quantum Electro Dynamics. This is the area in which Feynman made his bones in physics (he made equally important contributions to the rare art of common sense and education at large). QED is a succint and readable description of a very deep theory. No jokes here — just plain first class science writing.

  6. Jonathan Yedidia Says:

    Thanks Shimon! I edited the post above to echo your recommendation.

  7. Jensen Says:

    I didn’t even know the book “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track” existed. I know Feynman is a genius but after reading the letter you quoted above it looks like he is a good writter as well. Most of his other books were ghost written, so I wasn’t sure.

    I am definately going to check out the collection of letters.

  8. Shubhendu Trivedi Says:

    Yes this is indeed a very good book by Feynman, i am lucky enough to have read it.
    Though i must admit that i am a little surprised by some above posts, but i appreciate them as they are very honest. There are a few more books by Feynman that just must be read..
    like “no ordinary genius”, “what do you care what other people think”, tuva or bust..i have not been able to obtain tuva or bust.
    and really want to read it..
    there are a few other books as well, as some body mentioned above, QED, and six easy pieces and six not so easy pieces..Also his thesis is now available in the form of a book for those interested!

    Nice Post Jonathan, it is very difficult to write about a hero in such few words! and you have done so very well!

  9. Yves Messer Says:

    As an admirer of Richard Feynman and an artist passionate about science, I have completed his painted portrait viewable at
    http://ymesser.blogspot.com/2010/08/portrait-of-richard-feynman.html
    I also have in recent years completed the portrait of Professor Stephen Hawking who granted me with the privilege to meet him in his Cambridge’s offices here in the UK.

    Indeed I am seeking a dialogue between Scientists and Artists. Both scientific giants like Einstein or Feynman were also artists!

    Thank you

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