Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman, by Richard Feynman. New York: Basic Books, 2006. 512 pp. $18 (paperback)

When a representative for the USSR invited Richard Feynman to a physics conference in that country, he wrote back this letter:

Thank you very much for your invitation to the Dubna Conference. I have thought a good deal about the matter and would have liked to go. However, I believe I would feel uncomfortable at a scientific conference in a country whose government respects neither freedom of opinion of science, nor the value of objectivity, nor the desire of many of its scientist citizens to visit scientists in other countries. (p. 143)

This is one of many gems in Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman. The book is full of such letters, and they range, like Feynman’s own interests, across myriad subjects.

Many of the letters are Feynman’s responses to letters asking about the best way to go about learning or teaching the subject of physics. For example, in a reply to an incoming freshman at CalTech, Feynman writes:

Learn by trying to understand simple things in terms of other ideas—always honestly and directly. What keeps the clouds up, why can’t I see stars in the daytime, why do colors appear on oily water, what makes the lines on the surface of water being poured from a pitcher, why does a hanging lamp swing back and forth—and all the innumerable little things you see all around you. Then when you have learned to explain simpler things, so you have learned what an explanation really is, you can then go on to more subtle questions. (p. 230)

Other letters are more personal. For example, the private letters between Feynman and his mother about his choice to marry Arline, even after she became seriously ill, show Feynman as a young man of integrity. The letters between Arline and Feynman show them both being playful and deeply in love with one another. . . .

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