Book Review: Don’t You Have Time to Think?

This book is a collection of the physicist Richard Feynman’s letters, as put together and edited by his daughter Michelle Feynman. There’s also a forward by Timothy Ferris, commentary from Michelle throughout, and six appendices of extra Feynman material.

The letters are roughly ordered temporally, which gives the reader a small amount of insight into most parts of Feynman’s post-teenage life. The first letter is from a 21-year-old Feynman to his mother, Lucille, as he is starting his graduate studies at Princeton University and the last is from an ageing Feynman writing to quell the worries of a father who is anxious about his son’s future. In between, we gain some insight into Feynman’s personal experiences working on the Manhattan project, being a Nobel laureate, and life in general, including a touching personal letter to his deceased first wife, Arline. Some of my favourite excerpts from this book are included below.

If you are a Feynman fan, then you’ll definitely find this book interesting and you’ve probably already read it. You could also gain something from this book if you need reminding that scientists aren’t autonomous beings that exist outside the realm of personal human experience. Indeed, Feynman’s letters offer a glimpse into the real human being that is responsible for the great Feynman legend.

Note: there’s a US version of this book that is published under the less-evocative title: “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track”.

From the letter written to the anxious father:

Q: What is it that would make a smart 16-year-old stop for a minute and think… A: Nothing, now, I hope. But to fall in love with a wonderful woman, and to talk to her quietly in the night will do wonders.

In response to the question about what he would do differently in physics if he had his time again:

I would try to forget how I had solved a problem. Then, each time the problem arose, I might solve it in a different way—I wouldn’t be thinking about how I had solved it before.

In the letter to Arline two years after her death:

I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead–but I still want to comfort and take care of you–and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you–I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that together… P.S. Please excuse my not mailing this–but I don’t know your new address.


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