Vincent Van Der Heyde to Richard Feynman, July 3, 1986 and Richard Feynman Reply
This is an excellent excerpt from the book I’m reading right now (as of this writing, 7th May) called Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track. Here’s what the book is about via GoodReads.
Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track covers a dazzling array of topics and themes, scientific developments and personal histories. With missives to and from scientific luminaries, as well as letters to and from fans, family, students, crackpots, as well as everyday people eager for Feynman’s wisdom and counsel, the result is a de facto guide to life, and eloquent testimony to the human quest for knowledge at all levels.
This is the letter conversation between a parent and Richard Feynman, American theoretical physicist, Nobel Prize winner in Physics. I also have included RPF reply letter.
Vincent Van Der Heyde to RPF, July 3, 1986
OK, right from the start this might seem to be a strange letter. But once you see what I’m trying to do maybe it will not sound so strange. First off, I have this 16 year old son, step-son really, that is fairly bright. No genius you understand, but a lot smarter than I am in math and such. Like everybody else he is trying to figure out what life is all about. What he doesn’t know yet is that nobody ever figures what life is all about, and that it doesn’t matter. What matters is getting on with living. So, here is this kid, bright, very good in math and chemistry and physics. Flying radio controlled model airplanes, and reading books about wing design that have a lot of equations in them that I sure don’t know how to solve.
But at the same time he’s trying to grow up and figure himself and his world out a little. A bit over weight, a little shy, not a whole lot of self-confidence. So he makes up for it by coming on a little strong, playing macho sometimes. Trying to figure out what kind of a man he’s going to be. Trying to work out how to handle high school. He’s going to be a junior come fall, so college is not far away. He’d love to get into some neat school, but with his grades the way they are that could be a problem.
Now, I don’t want to be pushy parent. Whatever he wants to do is fine with me. I started out in electrical engineering in 1960 because my father wanted an engineer, and ended up in criminology. So I know what it’s like to be pushed around by a parent and have those expectations forced on you. All I want is that he do whatever it is he wants to do to the best of his ability. It’s almost a matter of honor in a way. If you can do something well, you have some sort of obligation to yourself to do it the best you can. I’m afraid that’s a concept not thought highly of in a lot of circles, now or ever, but how can an intelligent person live with themselves if they aren’t doing something they love to the best of their ability ?
Anyhow, after talking to his teachers for the past two years a real pattern emerges. It seems that he picks all the science up fast, sees how you do a thing, and then he wants to go on as fas as he can on his own. Some of the teachers really encourage that, which is great. But… it turns out that everybody grades on the basis of how you score on the tests, and the tests only cover what they teach to everybody. Martin, that’s his name, sees the basic stuff as too easy for him and hence it’s beneath him to hand in the routine day to day assignments. He’d rather be doing the neat fun stuff that the rest of the class never gets to do. The trouble is that a lot of the grade comes from doing the routine stuff, not the exotic stuff, so his grades are down. That, of course, is a bummer. His teachers get after him, I harass him more than I should, and he feels bad. Bah and humbug all the way around. In the non-science courses it’s even worse, because he knows that a lot of the stuff in bull and indoctrination. You get the picture.
Well now. A few months ago I came across this book. Interesting (different) title and the guy on the cover looks like a standup comic, not a physicist. Both Martin and I read the book. VERY funny. But we notice almost every story has some point to it. This isn’t just a book of funny stories; it’s a book about how the world works! Cover. We also follow the news about the Challenger tragedy and the Rogers Commission. And here’s the same fellow as wrote the book, helping put NASA back on the track to the stars, and not mincing words in doing it. Great.
So I get to thinking. Here’s this guy. My kid has read his book, followed his news and all and the guy is a Nobel Prize winner too. The sort of fellow that kids with a bent toward science look at and go WOW. And I have tis “problem”. Now you obviously know a lot about science, and if the book is any indication you know a lot about how people work too. And who knows what it is that would make a smart 16 years old kid stop for a minute and think about what it is that he really wants in his life (at least for a while) and what it is going to take to get it. So… Maybe you could write to this kid. Tell him what you think “about life”; what does it mean to be. I don’t know, tell him whatever you want to tell him. Just knowing that somebody “out there” understands and cares a little can make a big difference sometimes. It helps keep the wings straight and the nose up. Thanks.
Vincent A. Van Der Hyde
PS It is a good book, hope you write another for the “popular press”.
Richard P. Feynman to Vincent A. Van Der Hyde, July 21, 1986
Mr. V.A.Van Der Hyde
Dar Mr.Van Der Hyde:
You ask me to write on what I think about life, etc., as if I had some wisdom. Maybe, by accident, I do-of course I don’t know-all I have is I have opinions.
As I began to read your letter I said to myself—"here is a very wise man.“ Of course, it was because you expressed opinions just like my own. Such as, "what he doesn’t know yet is that nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and that it doesn’t matter” “Whatever he wants to do is fine with me"—provided "he does it to the best of his ability.” (You go on to speak of some sort of obligation to yourself etc., but I differ a little—I think it is simply the only way to get true deep happiness-not an obligation—"to do something you love to the best of your ability")
Actually if you love it enough you can’t help it, if anyone will give you a little freedom. Even in my crazy book I didn’t emphasize-but it is true—that I worked as hard as I could at drawing, at deciphering Mayan, at drumming, at cracking safes, etc. The real fun of life is this perpetual testing to realize how far out you can go with any potentialities.
For some people(for me, and, I suspect, for your son) when you are young you only want to go as fast as far and as deep as you can in one subject-all the others are neglected as being relatively uninteresting. But later on what you get older you find nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Because what you learned as a youth was that some one thing is every more interesting as you go deeper. Only later do you find it true of other things—ultimately everything too. Let him go, let him get all distorted studying what interests him the most as much as he wants. True, our school system will grade him poorly-but he will make out. Far better than knowing only a little about a lot of things.
It may encourage you to know that the parents of the Nobel prize winner Don Glaser (physicist inventor of the bubble chamber) were advised, when their son was in the third grade, that he should be transferred to a school for retarded children. The parents stood firm and were vindicated in the the fourth grade when their son turned out to be a whiz at long division. Don tells me he remembers he didn’t bother to answer any of the dumb obvious questions of the earlier grades-but he found long division harder, the answers not obvious, and the process fascinating so began to pay attention.
So don’t worry—but don’t let him get too much out of hand like Don Glaser. What advice can I give him? He won’t take it, of course. But the two of you-father and son-should take walks in the evening and talk (without purpose or routes) about this and that. Because his father is a wise man, and the son I think is wise too for they have the same opinions I had when I was a father and when I was a son too. These don’t exactly agree, of course, but the deeper wisdom of the older man will grow out the concentrated energetic attention of the younger. Patience.
To answer your questions in your last paragraph more explicitly.
Q: What do you have to do to train yourself to be whatever it is you want to be ?
A: There are many roads all different that have been taken by many different scientists. The road I took is the one your son takes—work as hard as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Try to keep the other grades from going zero if you can. Don’t think of what “you want to be”, but what you “want to do.” Luckily he knows that already, so let him do it. (But keep up some kind of minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.)
Q: What is it that would make a smart 16-year old stop for a minute and think..
A: Nothing, now, I hope. But to fall in love with a wonderful woman, and to talk to her quietly in the night will do wonders.
Stop worrying, Papa. Your kid is wonder. Yours from another Papa of another wonderful kid.
Richard P. Feynman
At this time of this printing, Mr. Van Der Hyde reported that his son has met a wonderful woman in college, was now married with two children, and was in the last year of his Ph.D. program in physical oceanography at the University of Hawaii. When considering the long-term effects of Feynman’s letter, Mr. Van Der Hyde decided that it was, of course, impossible to know how significant it was.
He continued, “But I know it was important to me, as a parent, and I know that my son has never forgotten how one of the ‘grates’ took a few minutes just for him.”