Just when you thought the fount of Feymaniana had run dry comes this splendid collection of letters assembled and introduced by adopted daughter Michelle.
It starts with achingly heartbreaking letters to his first wife, Arline, who would die of tuberculosis in a sanitarium in Albuquerque while Richard worked on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos. Included is a letter he addressed to her after her death, which Michelle notes “is well worn—much more than others . . . as though he reread it often.” The letters are emblematic of the passion Feynman brought to his life and work and expressed in crystal-clear prose—in his lectures, his texts, his popular writing and in these letters to the world: colleagues, family, institutions, fans, worried parents, eager high-schoolers and the occasional crank. Over and over again, he tells kids to study what they love, tells their parents not to worry, patiently explains errors to would-be solvers of physics problems or coiners of new theories. Over and over again, Feynman reveals an integrity that led him to refuse any honorary degree, decline invitations to Russia as long as restrictions were imposed, decline signing petitions in the absence of what he saw was necessary evidence. Similarly, he often confessed his ignorance of the arts and refused to be drawn into discussions of art and science (but did comment on religion). The letters move chronologically through his settling down at Caltech, marriage to Gweneth, the Englishwoman he hired as a housekeeper, the Nobel in 1965, and the decades following, including, two years before his death from cancer, his pivotal role in demonstrating that faulty O-rings caused the Challenger disaster. Feynman’s article on what was wrong with the “New Math” and some neat popular articles are in the appendices, along with a quote in which Feynman describes his elation at discovering a new law of physics: “There was a moment when I knew how nature worked. It had elegance and beauty. The goddamn thing was gleaming.”
That gleam shines throughout here.