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Bookmarks Issue: 
17-July-Aug-2005
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The Letters of Richard P. Feynman

A-PerfectlyReasonableDeviationsA lifetime of correspondence compiled and edited by his daughter reveals as much about the Feynman, Nobel Prize-winning Caltech physicist (1918-1988), as do all of his previous books. Feynman’s letters, presented chronologically, take us well beyond his merry prankster public persona and offer tantalizing glimpses into both his private and professional life as disclosed to his family, colleagues, students, average citizens, and a few crackpots. Highlights include reflections on his tragic first marriage, descriptions of the Manhattan Project, his acceptance of fame, and an insider’s look at the Challenger investigation.
Basic Books. 486 pages. $26. ISBN: 0738206369

Christian Science Monitor 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Perfectly Reasonable … makes palpable the legend that surrounds this Nobel laureate and Caltech physics professor nonpareil. … In an ably edited collection of letters—like this one—the scenery, the locale, the greater and lesser events, the personages strutting in and out of Feynman’s experience readily front for the texture of a time as well as a life."
Jim Bencivenga

Los Angeles Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Only a true Feynman fanatic could appreciate, for example, the puffery of letters (a whole chapter of them) following the announcement of his Nobel prize, or the eight pages of correspondence in which he tediously tries to resign his membership from the National Academy of Sciences. … The best thing in the book may be a long letter to his mother, Lucille, written in August 1945, giving his firsthand account of the Trinity explosion." George Johnson

NanoTechnology Group 3.5 of 5 Stars
"The letters are brisk, unpretentious, and, above all else, amazingly clear. … Some of the most enjoyable letters are to the various day-dreamers who claimed to have stumbled upon a fundamental theory of physics from the comfort of the living room." Brendan Boyle

New Scientist 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Few books really are ‘a joy to read.’ This one, full of charm and wisdom, truly is." Marcus Chown

New York Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"What this latest addition shows most remarkably is Feynman’s place in the popular imagination—and how striking it is that any physicist would occupy it. … But the freshest and most interesting letters here are the ones written to regular folk—teenagers or teachers or parents who wrote to him from all over the world in moments of academic crisis or emotional doubt." Kate Zernike

Critical Summary

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations is a must-read for admirers of the celebrated physicist. The Manhattan Project-era letters are understandably sparse in their scientific content (thanks to wartime censors) and focus mainly on his terminally ill first wife. These letters suggest how Feynman masked his pain with his jokester image. (He makes no mention of his brief, unsuccessful second marriage.) The letters are mostly non-technical and are readily accessible to anyone with even a passing interest in physics, although casual readers might find them occasionally obscure. This collection will allow readers to enter Feynman’s brilliant, very human mind.

Supplemental Reading

Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character | Richard Feynman (1985): These anecdotes, transcribed from tape recordings, offer another autobiographical peek into Feynman’s mind—a smart, eccentric, captivating place in which to spend time. We recommend reading this entertaining book before tackling the volume of collected letters.