The Quotable Feynman
Edited by Michelle Feynman
Princeton University Press, 432pp | Buy on Amazon
Nobel Prize-winning Richard Feynman was one of the greatest physicists of the past century and a man of many talents. Ever since he was a boy, Feynman offered hints he would become an accomplished scientist. By the time he was 10, Feynman had his own laboratory at home and, a few years later, he was employing his sister Joan as an assistant at a salary of four cents a week. By 15, young Feynman had already mastered trigonomentry, advanced algebra, analytic geometry and calculus. After he graduated from MIT in 1939, he got perfect marks in maths and physics exams for the graduate school at Princeton University, which was unprecedented. Eventually this landed him a job in the Manhattan Project in the early Forties, where he would contribute to developing the A-bomb — something he would deeply regret later in life.
Feynman’s greatest contribution to science is the path integral formalism of Quantum Field Theory and “silly little diagrams” which bear his name and describe fundamental particle interactions. The physicist was also an outstanding communicator. His lectures on physics would always fill the hall, and over the course of a decades long career as a Professor of Physics, Feynman nurtured thousands of eager young minds.
There are quite a few biographies on Feynman’s life. Some are quirky and cheesy, going to great lengths to validate his towering persona, others more moderate detail his greatest achievements, tumultuous personal life and flaws. Feynman was a complicated person, that’s for sure. If you’re looking to sip from his wisdom and, maybe, understand how Feynman ‘ticked’ you might find “The Quotable Feynman” an indispensable complementary material to his biographies.
The Quotable Feynman is solely comprised of quotes by Feynman, gathered by his daughter, Michelle Feynman, from various sources. These include interviews, letters, books and more arranged under two dozen topics from the “Nature of Science”, to “War”, to “Love”. If you’re a die-hard Feynman fan, most of these quotes will be familiar, like:
“[After discussing calculating the position of Venus:] I don’t know about the philosophy of Mayans — we have very little information due to the efficiency of the Spanish conquistadores and, well, mostly their priests, who burned all the books. They had hundreds of thousands of books and there’s three left. And one of them has this Venus calculation, and that’s how we know about that. Just imagine our civilization reduced to three books — the particular ones left by accident, which ones?” (The Quotable Feynman, pg. 26)
“The pleasure in physics, for me, is that it’s revealed that the truth is so remarkable and amazing. I hate this disease, and many other people who studied far enough to begin to understand a little about how things work are fascinated by it, and this fascination guides them on to such an extent that they’ve been able to convince governments to keep supporting them in this investigation that the race is making!” (The Quotable Feynman, pg. 39)
“I believe, although I can’t guarantee it, that most of my education as a graduate student was through my own studying, through worrying about problems, through talking to friends, and very little courses. And that’s the way it was in those days. (pg. 45).
“I have a friend who’s an artist and he’s sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say, “look how beautiful it is,” and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, “I as an artist can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist take it all apart, and it becomes dull.” I think he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people — and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is, I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. But at the same time, I see much more in the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells inside, which also have a beauty. There’s beauty not just at the dimension of one centimeter; there’s also beauty at a smaller dimension. There are the complicate actions of cells, and other processes. The fact that the colors in the flower have evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate is interesting; that means insects can see the colors. That adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense we have also exist in lower forms of life? There are kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of the flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.” (The Quotable Feynman, pg. 54).
You wouldn’t want to read this book cover to cover (yes, there might be such thing as too much Feynman – especially if you read his quotes in an anachronic New York accent). Personally, I enjoyed opening this book each morning for coffee or for a couple of minutes before going to bed. You can open it at random confidently, since you’ll be sure to grasp wisdom from any page. Speaking of which, this is what might put some off. Most of these quotes are thrown so out of context (there is nothing but Feynman quotes in the book), that it’s difficult to grasp what Feynman was going at. Michelle Feynman did a decent job at aggregating these into sections, but it’s far from perfect. Frankly, it would have been better if this book was only half as long. Take this quote from the “WAR” section: “I report to Rogers that I have these close relatives with press connections and is it OK to visit with them? He is very nice and says, ‘Of course.’ ” (The Quotable Feynman, pg. 270). Sure, this might have made sense to his letter correspondents but it sure doesn’t to me. Still, a worthy addition to your collection if you own at least one Feynman biography or read his lectures.