Don't you have time to think?

Richard Phillip Feynman


ISBN 978-0-141-02113-3

Book cover: Don't you have time to think

(Image Source)

This book is a collection of letters that were written to and by Richard Feynman, a great person, a Nobel laureate in Physics, a great iconoclast, and a beautiful, beautiful man. These letters span his lifetime, from his letters when he first left his parents to study at Princeton and MIT, to his love and wife Arline, and later to Gweneth among the many letters he wrote (and this surprises many that he did, and did so much).

His willingness and excitement to communicate the most complex of problems in the simplest of analogies is evident when he responds to small students, and awkward fan mails from the orient. A person is not just what is described by the press, or by his autobiographies, or by his friends and family, no, the world is much bigger than that! We meet far more people than that and we touch many lives, in some way. What these people think of us, and how we touched them is a much larger picture. This book, is an example of how he fared and to me, he was phenomenal. And that is not it, he still continues to inspire people, like he inspires me. Ironically, he also authored ‘What do you care what other people think?’ but there is no conflict.

It is not just that. The letters were much more than that. I have come to love this man, for I have thoroughly enjoyed his company. There are quite a few intense moments in these letters. I'd want to tell about a few, but it behoves me to set the tone by first telling what Feynman loved to do, and how he did it.

Richard was imbibed with the ideas of curiosity, questioning and the nature of inquiry from a very young age by his father. He had a very special kind of relation with his father. At a young age of 3, his father would initiate him into the symmetry and patterns of mathematics, and as Richard recalls, his father would sit Richard down on the lap, and read to him from the Encyclopedia Britannica, and then would imagine with him, what was just said. The visualizing of a problem in very tangible examples was something his father instilled in him. (It shouldn't be too surprising to know that he explained a complex theory of Quantum Electrodynamics by visualizable diagrams, now called Feynman diagrams. It was for this, that he got the Nobel prize.)

In 'Surely you're joking', Feynman in a place shows this, how he argued with the mathematicians, by taking their abstract mathematics into the realm of the physical world, and then explaining it; Or what it means for a line to be a tangent on the curve (and consequently its slope being the same as the point where it is tangential).

He constantly advocated that one must do what one loves, and how to think for oneself (and not listen to authorities). In everything that happens, the physical phenomenon and even OOB experiences, he wanted to find out how it worked. He was intensely curious. And his ethics were not limited to just his profession, he lived such a life in every sphere. A self taught Bongo drums player, learnt to draw after 40 years of age, and became awesome at it, his zeal for life was infectious. In a letter to his former PhD student, he writes:

Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and

we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is

You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. student (Albert Hibbs) whose thesis was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem instead of letting you find your own; and left you with the wrong idea of what is interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely, those problems you see you may do something about), I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to help correct it a little.

I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed. For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or, how elastic properties of crystals depends on the forces between the atoms in them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio knobs). Or, how neutrons diffuse out of Uranium. Or, the reflection of electromagnetic waves from films coating glass. The development of shock waves in explosions. The design of a neutron counter. Why some elements capture electrons from the L-orbits, but not the K-orbits. General theory of how to fold paper to make a certain type of child’s toy (called flexagons). The energy levels in the light nuclei. The theory of turbulence (I have spent several years on it without success). Plus all the “grander” problems of quantum theory.

No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.

Adversity, and disease breaks many. He was unshaken. His abdominal cancer did not break his capacity for life. Once, he tripped and hurt his head (and bled) while on his way to buy a personal computer. And yet, he didn't care one bit about it. He was happily fiddling with his computer at home when Gweneth and Michelle found him. Doctors had to drill two holes, and leave them as is, to relieve pressure in his head.

His daughter writes: "When he briefly emerged from a coma induced by kidney failure, his last words, spoken to the three women by his side (wife Gweneth, sister Joan, and cousin Frances), were: I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring." Imagine a man, who emerges temporarily from a coma, and all that he can comment on is his observation of lifelessness, "It's so boring". I wonder, if people who cross over to the other side of life, should they be able to come back, would they say "it is boring"? What effect would it have on the living lot? Not too positive, I presume. I knew Feynman had said that, but I didn't know in what condition he said it. Now that I do, I am at loss, and am thoroughly confused. Even while dying, he was probably 'observing' it, true to the way he lived his life. These words uttered are worth laughing over, worthy of celebration and worth crying over. I am at loss!

But his daughter preserved the best gem for the last. A father's letter to another father, who had written to Feynman seeking advice for his scientifically inclined son.

He writes back "You ask me to write on what I think about life, etc., as if I had some wisdom. Maybe, by accident, I do- of course I don't know- all I know is I have opinions." And how I echo his viewpoint when I say that I won't say we, but only I, for I wouldn't generalize what I think or feel to everyone else.

"As I began to read your letter I said to myself- ‘here is a very wise man.’ Of course, it was because you expressed opinions just like my own. Such as, ‘what he doesn't know yet is that nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and that it doesn't matter.’” Of course I've chanced upon this discovery many times. But it has never stayed.

"’Whatever he wants to do is fine with me’- provided ‘he does it to the best of his ability.’(You go on to speak of some sort of obligation to yourself etc., but I differ a little-I think it is simply the only way to get true deep happiness- not an obligation-’to do something you love to the best of your ability.’)

Actually if you love it enough you can't help it, if anyone will give you a little freedom. Even in my crazy book I didn't emphasize but it is true- that I worked as hard as I could on drawing, at deciphering Mayan, at drumming, at cracking safes, etc.. The real fun of life is this perpetual testing to realize how far out you can go with any potentialities.

For some people (for me, and I suspect, for your son) when you are young you only want to go as fast and as deep as you can in one subject-all others are neglected as being relatively uninteresting. But later on when you grow older you find nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough."

Further, he writes "Don't think of what ‘you want to be’, but what you ‘want to do’. Luckily he knows that already, so let him do it. (But keep up some kind of minimum with other things so that society doesn't stop you from doing anything at all.)

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.

Stop worrying, Papa. Your kid is wonderful. Your from another Papa of another wonderful kid.”

Feynman raised his kids in the best way he could. In "What do you care what other people think?", he wrote that he wanted to be the coolest dad, and would let his children become whatever they wanted to. But now his son wants to be a Philosopher. (His son did not disappoint, he became a philosopher, and a good one at that).

The way he graciously accepted the criticism is really endearing to me. If someone calls you a jerk (and also tells you why they think so), rather than getting angry and proving them right, he accepts it while expressing himself, effectively throwing the ball to the other person's court. The way he admonishes and also cares for emotions is really beautiful. In a letter where Don Wright says that he doesn't have a lot of time for most Americans (U.S. ones anyway) but that he was so impressed by Feynman's talk on BBC2 program that he had to write and tell him. Feynman responded with

"Thank you very much for your kind remarks about my TV program. Maybe not would help you with your problem about my being an American, to know that my wife is an Englishwoman from Yorkshire. She has probably improved me greatly."

Above all, despite being a great scientist, he was an even greater teacher. He advocated scientific inquiry, but never tried to bend people towards science. When young students, and interviewers asked him for guidance, on how they could 'do science', he told them instead what he felt they must do, which is to do what they love, and not what others tell that they must do. His wager in life is clearly reflected in what he wrote about “New textbooks for the ‘New’ Mathematics”:

to make it more interesting and easier for students to learn those attitudes of mind and that spirit of analysis which is required for efficient understanding and use of mathematics in engineering, science, and other fields. The main change that is required is to remove the rigidity of thought found in the older arithmetic books.

How does one review someone’s life, or letters that were meant for individuals, without a purpose of being published one day, perhaps, as a compendium mirror of your image? Does one write a letter to be critiqued by posterity on what he told an individual about? I think it would be none of our business, except to enjoy them while we can, if we can, and have opinions.

P.S.: Like always, I have a lot to talk about when it is about Feynman. I've written more about this book, and its excerpts in these posts:

The book has found me

Letter I would have wanted to write

More food for thought from Feynman, his contemporaries, and me?

P.P.S.: Like always, if you feel like reading this book, you can buy it from Amazon by clicking here (link), or on the image on top. :)

P.P.P.S: How easily we forgot Arline and the elaborate conversations between him and her. We did, as we turned the pages of this book. He didn't.