Richard Feynman and The Textbook Selection Process.


Richard Feynman was one of the pre-eminent physicists of the twentieth century. He shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his theoretical work on quantum electrodynamics, a field of physics that describes how sub-atomic particles interact. He was a professor at Caltech, and famous for his ability to get to the core of an issue.

If you followed the Challenger disaster investigation, you might remember seeing him dump a rubber gasket in a glass of ice water to demonstrate why the gaskets allowed the rocket exhaust to burn a hole in the rocket. He was a thorough and direct man who preferred looking at the original data rather than read someone's idea as to what the data meant.

He was asked to participate on a California textbook selection committee that was charged with evaluating textbooks for use in California public schools. He agreed, thinking it was a worthwhile use of his time.

When the book depository called and asked where to send the 300 pounds of books, they told him not to worry, they could send over someone to help him read the books. Feynman said he wasn't quite sure how that would work and declined the offer of an assistant.

During the weeks that he was reading texts, he kept getting calls from the publishers. They wanted to take him out to dinner, lunch, wherever he wanted. They wanted to talk over the advantages of their textbook. He kept fending them off, saying he was confident he would be able to read the texts. Moreover, he knew that the teachers wouldn't be receiving this kind of attention so he felt the books should be judged on their own merits.

One book in particular drew his attention. It was one out of a three book series. During a meeting he was asked by some of the other committee members what he thought of the book. He responded that he really couldn't say, that he hadn't received it. One of the members continued to press for an answer. After Feynman repeated himself a second time, a book depository employee piped up and explained that he had elected not to send the book on to the committee members. The publisher had missed the deadline and substituted a book with blank pages instead. They had included a note explaining that the book would be ready in time and hoped it could still be considered.

The amazing part of this story is that several of the committee members had nominated the book for inclusion on the approved list!

Feynman went on to talk about the unsolicited gifts he received from the publishers. He kept sending them back but one incident took him completely by surprise. He had arrived in San Francisco the evening before a committee meeting. He left his hotel room, intending to wander the streets to find a place to eat. As he walked into the lobby, two men popped up, greeted him by name and asked him if they could help him in any way. He explained that he was just going out and no thank you. They persisted. He said, "Look, I'm just going out to get into a bit of trouble." They responded, "Maybe we can help you with that too." He demurred and then later kicked himself for not seeing just how far they would go and documenting the evening.

The source for this story is Feynman's autobiography, "Surely you're joking Mr. Feynman..."

A funny Feynman story.

The Cartersville, Georgia experience adds another perspective to the subject of selecting textbooks.