Mel Feynman knew that his son was a born scientist; still, he left nothing to chance. Richard Feynman’s father constantly found ways to nurture his children’s curiosity about the physical world. It was also from his father that Feynman learned his independence toward status quo philosophy and religion. Richard Feynman’s exuberance and joie de vivre, however, were his alone.
His acceptance, as a young man, of the expected death of his first wife revealed an uncommon wisdom. As a scientist, his life was occupied in seeking the reasons behind the phenomena of the physical world; the more philosophical questions regarding life and death would yield no ready answers, and were better left alone. That Arlene had died was a fact, but his life had to continue, and there was much work to be done. At this time, he was employed at Los Alamos, New Mexico, on the Manhattan Project.
Feynman did occasionally philosophize about morality and science. In defense of his work on the atomic bomb, he said that the “key” of science is able to unlock the gates of both heaven and hell. It is in the applications of science that morality comes into play.
This collection, compiled with the help of longtime friend Ralph Leighton in the final weeks of Feynman’s life, is both humorous and tragic. It portrays Feynman meeting the king and queen of Belgium, as well as serving on the president’s committee to investigate the space shuttle Challenger disaster of January, 1986. Comprising nearly half the book, this segment makes fascinating reading; the characters in “Mr. Feynman Goes to Washington” are reminiscent of the best of Joseph Heller’s fiction.
As in his early work, “SURELY YOU’RE JOKING, MR. FEYNMAN,” Feynman’s prose style is conversational and down-to-earth. The selection of anecdotes and letters is balanced. The reader is not overwhelmed with facts, yet a clear picture emerges. This is a biographical sketch without sketchiness.
Feynman died in February, 1988, after a ten-year battle with abdominal cancer.