Don’t tell Richard Feynman

I’ve been reading Don’t You Have Time to Think?, a collection of letters written by (and to) the great physicist Richard Feynman.

As I tweeted earlier today, Feynman comes across as warm, generous, sincere and self-effacing. He was also blessed with wit, patience, and admirable directness.

Here’s a short, amusing exchange he had with Francis Crick in 1978:

Dear Francis,
I regret having to do this, but I’m returning this paper to you unread. My schedule is such lately that I must refuse to get bogged down reading someone else’s theory; it may turn out to be wonderful and there I’d be with something else to think about.
Richard P. Feynman

Crick replied:

Dear Dick,
I would have done the same! The usual expression used in Molecular Biological circles is due to Frank Stahl: “Don’t tell me – I might think about it!”
Yours ever,

Don’t tell me – I might think about it! I may adopt that.

On a linguistic note, the book includes correspondence with A. M. Hughes at the OED, who was seeking further information on the origins of parton, a word coined by Feynman to refer to what we now call quarks and gluons.

The provisional definition of parton to be included in the OED Supplement was: “Each of the hypothetical point-like constituents of the nucleon that were invoked by R. P. Feynman to explain the way the nucleon inelastically scatters electrons of very high energy.” Feynman found the definition “admirable”.

Over on Tumblr, I posted one other letter from the book, wherein Feynman gives his reasons for declining an honorary degree after winning the Nobel Prize in Physics.

If you’re interested in buying Don’t You Have Time to Think?, you can do so at Penguin Books so long as typos don’t bother you inordinately: the edition I have, pictured above, contains several. Steven Poole has a short, accurate review in the Guardian that might sway you.


11 Responses to Don’t tell Richard Feynman

  1. John Cowan says:

    If typos bothered us, we’d have to confine our reading to Sentence First and Languagehat.

  2. limr says:

    My high school physics teacher showed us a documentary on Richard Feynman and it made such an impression on my that I remember it all these years later. Of course, the thing that interested me the most was his obsession to get to Tuva and the work he and his assistant did to try to get permission to go.!

    Actually, I just did some checking and this might be at least part of the video that I saw in high school:

  3. Stan says:

    John: Now I’m wondering if one has slipped by me somewhere, somehow! I’m used to seeing a few typos in a book, and it doesn’t bother me, but for some reason I expected better proofreading in this one. And they were unusual: two in one word (“comisssion”) and stationery spelt with -ary throughout, for example.

    limr: I’d heard of Ralph Leighton’s book, and it’s mentioned briefly in DYHTTT?, but I’ve neither read it nor seen the film. Thank you for the link; I’ll watch it when I get a chance. I hear it even has some Tuvan throat singing.

  4. Shaun Downey says:

    Another book to dd to my ever increasing”to read” list

  5. Stan:
    In his “Confessions,” Jean Jacques Rousseau recounted the details of an amorous dalliance. The woman in question had a physical blemish that destroyed his enjoyment and ended the relationship for him. That may be an exaggerated example to make my point, but it illustrates my reaction to typos; not that I’m free of the sin. Mea culpa!

  6. Ado_Annie says:

    @Shaun, I’m in your corner, the stacks get higher and higher and I get further and further behind. I turned the spare bedroom into my library, three walls covered floor to ceiling. A person came over to visit and I took her to the library to show her the curtains I’d gotten at bargain price. She stopped dead at the door and said, “You READ all of these?!” Over a lifetime, yes, most of them.

    And speaking of proofreading, I’m glad I’m not the only one peeved at the poor quality I’ve seen over the past few years. He swapped for she, repeating a paragraph, the word spelled correctly, but in the wrong context (to, too, two, etc.), a character looking up to see something below them, all sorts of things that should have been caught by a living, breathing editor or proofreader. But what does spellcheck care?

    Ah, I’m off my soapbox now, back to your regularly scheduled comments.

  7. Allie says:

    I second what Shaun Downey says. What a convincing review!

  8. Stan says:

    Shaun: If you were local, I’d lend you my copy.

    Marc: I don’t share that feeling, but publishers should pay attention to it – and pay for good proofreaders.

    Annie: I don’t dare count how many unread books I have. Many hundred, anyway, though I read every day. Can’t stop buying more! It’s a pleasure to read a book without a single typo, but too often I encounter several over the course of a few pages.

    Allie: Yes, Poole’s review conveys the book’s appeal very well.

  9. alexmccrae1546 says:


    Who knew?

    I sure didn’t have any clue that on the then-terminally-ill world famed physicist, Richard Feynman’s bucket-list, so to speak, was a much anticipated trip to the isolated land of Tuva—home to those funky throat singers, the most accomplished of whom, can amazingly utter, simultaneously, at least two separate tonal levels at once. (Talk about singing out of both sides of one’s mouth. Just sayin’.)

    Sad that Feynman never lived long enough to check that particular wish off his list.

    IMHO, much like the uninitiated foodie eating say salty anchovies, a dollop of fresh, stinky durian fruit, or a fork-full of pan-fried cow brains for the very first time, warming up to one’s initial experience of Tuvan throat singing can amount to a kind of acquired taste.

    Full disclosure, I never quite ‘warmed up’ to this very monotone, droning, chant-like ‘exotic’ mode of singing, practiced not only by the Tuvan culture, but also by several other northern Asiatic tribal peoples, including Inuit enclaves in Siberia, and in other remote Arctic climes.

    But let’s just set the record straight, you won’t be seeing Tuvan throat singers busting into the Billboard Top-40 charts any time soon. Yet for a small coterie of World-Music aficionados, I assume its distinctive, almost meditative, soothing sound, unlike any other, has a strong appeal. (Similar, perhaps, to the ancient, almost hypnotic-for-many, Gregorian chants, w/ largely Western audiences, that have found a certain ‘modern’ niche fan-base, as well.)

    Back in the mid-’90s, while strolling the touristic Santa Monica 3rd Street pedestrian mall (The Promenade) on L.A.’s more tony Westside, my girlfriend persuaded me to buy a recently-released cassette tape of an alleged top-notch ensemble of Tuvan throat singers. She’d recently heard a few selections from this album on KCRW, one of L.A.’s two major NPR outlets, and was intrigued. She figured I’d likely enjoy these ‘exotic’, unique throaty harmonies, (WRONG!), and so I fell for her positive recommendation.

    Even though I’d played the Scottish war-pipe (bagpipes), competitively, from about the age of ten and into my late teens back in Canada, and was used to the continuous harmonic droning of the three reeded ‘drones’ resting off my left shoulder—the supporting tonal backdrop to the melodic notes coming from the chanter (the part w/ the fingering holes)— I really wasn’t fully prepared for the not-un-similar low register, droning monotony of the Tuvan throat singers on the tape. (But these guys sounded more like a flat-lining bagpipe, w/ little, to no melodic line.)

    Frankly, I doubt I got much beyond listening to the second piece on the ‘album’, pretty much resigned to the fact that I’d wasted $10.00 buying the tape, and wouldn’t be joining the fraternity of avid Tuvan throat singing fans.

    But don’t let my underwhelming response to throat singing, Tuvan, or otherwise, deter anyone out there from checking out this admittedly intriguing and idiosyncratic mode of singing.

    I’d recommend it as maybe an appropriate ambient mood music to a meal of pan-fried brains, a side of fava beans, w/ a chaser of Yak’s milk. Yum!

  10. […] bookmash here last year, while an earlier post reported a couple of amusing items from Feynman’s collected letters. Feynman fans might also enjoy the excerpts […]

  11. prof premraj pushpakaran writes — 2018 marks the 100th birth year of Richard Phillips Feynman!!!

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