Basic Feynman
An Interview with Michelle Feynman
Michelle Feynman
Photo by Mark Hussman

How did you become involved in this project?

I heard about it happening and I felt I had to become directly involved. I have been peripherally involved on a number of projects and other books about my father—a CD-ROM about the Atomic Bomb, a theatrical play, documentaries and a feature film—but this project was one in which I wanted to actively participate.

I had read a few of his letters back in 1990, shortly after my motherís death. One that particularly struck me was a letter to a former secretary, in which he lamented that he was not a grandfather yet, that his kids were slow. I figured out I was in high school—in eleventh grade—when he wrote that. As I laughed, it occurred to me that his letters might make for interesting reading one day. Fourteen years later, I started doing just that.

Itís all part of a larger project. My brother and I find ourselves faced with a large demand for all things having to do with Richard P. Feynman, and we strive to balance that demand with maintaining his legacy in a conscientious manner. I hope that this book not only does justice to the spirit in which he worked, but also reveals more of the personality behind his accomplishments.

How many letters did you read?

I read close to 1,000 letters—most of them copies of the files from the Caltech Archives. When this project started, the files were being temporarily stored at a friendís house in San Francisco, so I had to wait for them to be shipped down to Los Angeles before I could begin. I think the total weight was something like 1,100 pounds. Itís a lot of paper.

As I read through them, I made copies of the letters I was considering and sent them to my editor in New York, Megan Hustad. I also transcribed all the personal letters of my fatherís that I had at my house, and the ones that my aunt (his sister) lent me for this book. I also looked at photographs, both at Caltech and family photos, including our large family slide collection, which is where many of the pictures in the book come from.

Why did you decide to publish these letters?

I think itís important to hear him in his own words without a filter. Much of his published work was given first as a verbal lecture (with only a page of cryptic notes to guide him) and recorded as given. Then the editors edited it into proper English, in parts making omissions, additions or reorganizations of ideas, and in parts sticking closely to the original words. As he himself described it, ďIt was a big job for I donít speak writable English.Ē Even the stories in Surely Youíre Joking and What Do You Care What Other People Think! have benefited from careful editing, but since Ralph Leighton made the wonderful decision to keep my fatherís speech patterns intact, the reader feels as if my father is telling these stories directly.

I knew about all the extensive and careful editing before I read the letters, so I really didnít know what to expect from his written work. I was not disappointed. In these letters he is articulate, insightful, considerate, humble, nurturing, funny, and charming. What better way for his teaching to continue than to publish these letters?

How long did it take you to work on the book?

About nine months, from April through December.

Anything about the process that surprised you?

That he wrote so many letters, both to scientists and to ordinary people, surprised me. The fact that he responded to letters of congratulations for the Nobel Prize surprised and impressed me.

Any things you found out along the way—either about your father or about publishing in general?

I learned some details about his life; for instance, that he took his first airplane flight ever during the war, with secret documents strapped to his back. I also discovered a letter written to my mother and me from 1982 (my brother was away at college at the time) that I had never seen. That was very exciting. I was charmed by his writing and I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with him again.

Must have been hard to have someone so famous as a father.

No, not really, but I suppose I do feel a little strange that I donít know enough about physics to understand what he did much of the time.

As a result of who he was, I have met a great many wonderful and interesting people, all of whom admire my father. As well as treasured friendships with a few of these remarkable people, Iíve had many opportunities that would otherwise not have come my way. Before I had children I was struggling as an actress, and a few auditions and resulting jobs came my way solely because I was working with people who thought highly of my father. Most of my associations have been pleasant, but there have been a few exceptions. When I was 16 or so, a psychologically unbalanced man persisted in calling my father three or four times a day—often at our house—and sent many cards and letters to him. I spoke to him several times, and always found it disconcerting and troubling. My father finally had to resort to legal action to force him to stop, and then the man persisted in calling and writing to our lawyer! This man called even called a few times after my father died, claiming responsibility for his death; he said that he had killed my father.

What was he like as a father?

Fantastic. Fun, supportive, sweet, silly. He went to great lengths to entertain us. When I was young, the nightly ritual included him scouring the house for the correct stuffed animal, with me rejecting each and every offering until I had the desired one, or until he had made me laugh with his efforts. Iím not sure which was more important. He also made for an excellent radio. I would sit on his lap and turn his nose, and he would make up songs from different radio stations.

Do you have any favorite letters?

The personal ones—the ones to his first wife, his mother and my mother. He was a devoted husband and son, and the letters are loving and often funny, full of his personality. Perhaps my very favorite: a letter to his mother in which he mentions coming across an article about pine needle tea and the high levels of vitamin C that pine needles have. Then he says, ďSo, of course, I had to make pine needle tea. I did while visiting Putzie [nickname for his first wife] Sunday, not that either of us were short on Vitamin C (ascorbic acid) but my curiosity was aroused. Result—fair. Not too wonderful, not too bad. About as good as regular tea, but different. Crush the pine needles up—pour on boiling water and allow to steep a while. Serve hot, or with ice and lemon. Cheap. Remarkable fact is it tastes like pine needles.Ē

You mention in your preface that youíre still learning from him. What did he teach you?

While working on the book I became a better communicator and a better writer. I was inspired by one thing in particular I found going through these files. In an article on education he wrote for Caltechís Engineering and Science he stated: "The problem is clear language. The desire is to have the idea clearly communicated to the other person." He was speaking of mathematics textbooks at the time, but I think this statement in part explains why he was such an effective and marvelous communicator.

These letters are testimony to his skill and desire to be plainly understood—and, of course, to his passion and curiosity about the world. Again, his own words, this time from a letter to a young student seeking his advice, explain it best: "You cannot develop a personality with physics alone, the rest of life must be worked in."