Don't You Have Time to Think? by Richard P Feynman

Particle physics - the route to pop stardom
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The Independent Culture

Richard Feynman was one of those scientists who attract a pop-star following. His work, on sub-atomic particles, could hardly have been more abstruse but his style, as lecturer, teacher and writer, was approachable and encouraging.

Anyone wanting to know more about Feynman's career and discoveries will need to look elsewhere. This sizeable tome is a volume of letters to and from the physicist, saying little about his work but showcasing his personality and his role as superstar scientist. It begins with him as a young graduate student writing home, then takes him to Los Alamos, where he worked on the atomic bomb project, and on through a long career as experimental scientist and theoretician, Nobel Prize winner, and public man. In the latter role, he made an intervention that made him a household name in his native US, demonstrating on television how the failure of a cheap rubber O-ring seal had led to the destruction of the Challenger space shuttle. He was also a dedicated husband and a belated but doting father.

For the most part the letters are short and matter of fact. If genius really is an infinite capacity for taking pains, he has it. A mere request to cancel a subscription to this or that organisation or journal invariably leads to an exchange of views, with the organisation in question always desperate to discover what it did to offend the great man.

Feynman was never a great "joiner". He helped choose textbooks for California's state schools, but won a bet with a colleague that he would manage to avoid becoming an educational bureaucrat. There are pages of congratulatory letters here on his becoming a Nobel laureate, but he responded best to those from childhood acquaintances rather than statesmen, and in later years seemed to become disenchanted with having won the Prize at all.

Part of the reason for this was that it took him away from his beloved physics and opened him up to journalists, schoolchildren, amateur scientists and cranks of every description. Nonetheless, he retained a remarkable patience in the face of provocation. He manages a gentle reply, for instance, to a man who notes the way suspended objects twist back and forth on a string and wonders whether this "new force", which he proposes to name after himself, will prove to be a breakthrough in providing the world's energy needs.

It becomes clear that Feynman had not only a brilliant mind but great reserves of tact and simple kindness. Only rarely does he bristle, for instance when someone proposes to include him in a book about "Jewish winners of the Nobel Prize", which he characterises as an "adventure in prejudice". Having abandoned the tenets of Judaism at 13, he never wavered in his gentle atheism, nor in his determination to stay away from matters about which he had opinions but no expertise. He faced a long, slow struggle with cancer and the successive ordeals of surgery with great courage. These letters help to round out our picture of the man, and are rarely without interest, but their real value is to convinced fans and Feynman completists rather than to the general reader.

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