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Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! Adventures of a Curious Character

24 December, 2020 - 11 min read


I. Brief Summary

Richard Feynman, a Nobel Prize laureate was surely a curious character. An indeed a mischievous character filled with passion to explore new things. He dabbled into art and music. He sold his art and performed in front of several audiences. He traveled the world. He was deeply philosophical and held integrity of science to its highest standards. He contributed to quantum mechanics as a physicist. He also assisted in the development of atomic bomb during the World War II. He was most importantly an educator. He had this infectious way of solving everything around him. He loved to pull pranks on everyone and the book is filled with those stories. The book is very accessible, with little technical physics. He shares his views on how to deal with the world around you.

II. Big Ideas

  • Feynman applied first principles to every argument. For example when Feynman was asked whether a brick is an essential object. His response:

    • What I had intended to do was to find out whether they thought theoretical constructs were essential objects? The electron is a theory that we use; it is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call it real. I wanted to make the idea of a theory clear by analogy. In the case of the brick, my next question was going to be, “What about the inside of the brick?” — and I would then point out that no one has ever seen the inside of the brick. Every time you break the brick, you only see a surface. That the brick has an inside is a simple theory which helps us understand things better. The theory of electrons is analogous. So I began by asking, “Is a brick an essential object?”
  • Feynman on experimenting and playing:

    • When I was a kid I had a “lab.” It wasn't a laboratory in the sense that I would measure, or do important experiments. Instead, I would play: I'd make a motor, I'd make a gadget that would go off when something passed a photocell, I'd calculate a little bit for the lamp bank, a series of switches and bulbs I used as resistors to take control voltages.
    • Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing — ot didn't have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with...I didn't have to do it; it wasn't important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn't make any difference: I'd invent things and play with things for my own entertainment. So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I'll never accomplish anything.
    • It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from the piddling around with the wobbling plate.
  • Feynman on personal responsibility of others and removing the feeling of guilt:

    • Von Neumann gave me an interesting idea: that you don't have to be responsible for the world that you're in. So I have developed a very powerful sense of social irresponsibility as a result of Von Neumann's advice. It made me very happy ever since.
    • It was a brilliant idea: You have no responsibility to live up to what other people thing you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing.
  • Feynman on teaching elementary knowledge:

    • If you're a teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things that you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn't do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new problems associated with them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can't think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you are rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it.
  • Feynman on learning and memorization:

    • Students had memorized everything, but they didn't know what anything meant.
    • Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words.
    • I explained how useful it was to work together, to discuss the questions, to talk it over, but they wouldn't do that either, because they would be losing face if they had to ask someone else. It was pitiful! All the work they did, intelligent people, but they got themselves into this funny state of mind, this strange kind of self-propagating “education” which is meaningless, utterly meaningless.
  • Feynman's conversation on art vs science with his artist friend Jirayr Zorthian:

    • Artists are lost: they don't have any subject! They used to have the religious subjects, but they lost their religion and now they haven't gotten anything. They don't understand the technical world they live in; they don't know anything about the beauty of the real world—the scientific world—so they don't have anything in their hearts to paint.
    • Jerry would reply that artists don't need to have physical subject; there are many emotions that can be expressed through art. Besides, art can be abstract. Furthermore, scientists destroy the beauty of nature when they pick it apart and turn it into mathematical equations.
  • Feynman on ethics:

    • I used to give philosophical talks about science — how science satisfies curiosity, how it gives you a new world view, how it gives man the ability to do things, how it gives him power — and the question is, in view of the recent development of the atomic bomb, it is a good idea to give man that much power?
    • The subgroup I was in was supposed to discuss the “ethics of equality in education.” In the meetings of our subgroup the Jesuit priest was always talking about “the fragmentation of knowledge.” He would say, “The real problem in the ethics of equality in education is the fragmentation knowledge.” This Jesuit was looking back into the thirteenth century when the Catholic Church was in charge of all education, and the whole world was simple. There was God, and everything came from God; it was all organized. BUt today, it's not so easy to understand everything. So knowledge has become fragmented. I felt that “the fragmentation of knowledge” had nothing to do with “it,” but “it” had never been defined, so there was no way for me to prove that. Finally, I said, “What is the ethical problem associated with the fragmentation of knowledge?”...I gave some examples of the kinds of problems I thought we might be talking about. For instance, in education, you increase differences. If someone's good at something, you try to develop his ability, which results in differences, or inequalities. So if education increases inequality, is this ethical? Then, after giving some more examples, I went on to say that while “the fragmentation of knowledge” is a difficulty because the complexity of the world makes it hard to learn new things, in light of my definition of the realm of the subject, I couldn't see how the fragmentation of knowledge had anything to do with anything approximating what the ethics of equality in education might more or less be...They completely missed the point. I was trying to define the problem, and then show the “fragmentation of knowledge” didn't have anything to do with it. And the reason that nobody got anywhere in that conference was that they hadn't clearly defined the subject of “the ethics of equality in education,” and therefore no one knew exactly what they were supposed to talk about.
  • Feynman on cargo cult science (mysticism) and integrity of science:

    • But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science. That is the idea that we call hope you have learned in studying science in school — we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid — not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked — to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
    • In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another.
    • The easiest way to explain an idea is to contrast it.
    • The long history of learning how to not fool ourselves — of having utter scientific integrity — is, I'm sorry to say, something that we haven't specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you've caught on by osmosis. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.
    • I would like to add something that's not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you're talking as a scientist.
    • ...But just trying to be an ordinary human being...I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong, that you ought to have when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.
    • It is very dangerous to have such a policy in teaching — to teach students only how to get certain results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity. So I have just one wish for you — the good luck to be somewhere where you are free to maintain the kind of integrity I have described, and where you do not feel forced by a need to maintain your position in the organization, or financial support, or so on, to lose your integrity. May you have that freedom.

III. Quotes

  • The problem of having to fake and lie in order to be polite, and does this perpetual game of faking in social situations lead to the destruction of the moral fiber of society.
  • I had thought about scientific techniques for solving problems and how there are certain limitations: moral values cannot be decided by scientific methods, yak, yak, yak, and so on.
  • How does the stream of consciousness end, when you go to sleep?
  • That's why you should go to some other school. You should find out how the rest of the world is.
  • Learn what the rest of the world is like. The variety is worthwhile.
  • They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.
  • Every day I would study and read, study and read. It was a very hectic time.
  • You see, when I hear about physics, I just think about physics, and I don't know who I'm talking to, so I say dopey things like “no, no, you're wrong” or “you're crazy.”
  • The point is that I meant insanity is physiologically peculiar, and he thought I meant it was socially peculiar.
  • Japanese are very polite, but very obstinate.
  • The trouble with theorists is, they never pay attention to the experiments! — Valentine Telegdi
  • I never pay any attention to anything by “experts.” I calculate everything myself.
  • With art, nobody is really sure of its value, so people often think, ‘If the price is higher, it must be more valuable!’
  • And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don't quite understand what they're talking about, I cannot understand. I don't know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!
  • I had a certain psychological difficulty all the way through this period. You see, I had been brought up by father against royalty and pomp.