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Learning

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Richard Feynman
6
-min read
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Feynman tells a series of autobiographical stories which give an honest view into his philosophy and take on life. Be curious about everything. Experiment often. Focus on the real world, not on theory.

The Puzzle Drive

"The puzzle drive is what accounts for my wanting to decipher Mayan hieroglyphics, for trying to open safes."

"But the whole problem of discovering what was the matter, and figuring out what you have to do to fix it—that was interesting to me, like a puzzle."

"I don't know what's the matter with people: they don't learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!"

Exploring Other Disciplines

Don't get tunnel vision in one area of expertise. Feynman branched out and explored other disciplines (Biology and Mathematics), helping him build a different "box of tools" and better solve problems in physics and life.

"Learn what the rest of the world is like. The variety is worthwhile."

"It turned out that it was not understood at that time. So right away I found out something about biology: it was very easy to find a question that was very interesting, and that nobody knew the answer to. In physics you had to go a little deeper before you could find an interesting question that people didn't know."

"That was my attitude. To be a practical man was, to me, always somehow a positive virtue, and to be "cultured" or "intellectual" was not. The first was right, of course, but the second was crazy."

"So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else's, and they had tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me."

Feynman and the Bomb

People work harder when they know what the overall goal is.

"Oppenheimer went and talked to the security and got special permission so I could give a nice lecture about what we were doing, and they were all excited: "We're fighting a war! We see what it is!" They knew what the numbers meant. If the pressure came out higher, that meant there was more energy released, and so on and so on. They knew what they were doing."

Feynman says that he always spoke without thinking, and he referred to this as being "dumb". However, he later realised that people value individuals who speak their mind.

"So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we're not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we'll talk with him first." I was always dumb in that way. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried about the physics. If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy. If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition."

Lean into Distraction

Feynman tells a story of a Cornell cafeteria plate being tossed into the air. As the plate spun, it wobbled. He started investigating the relation between the two motions. At first, he thought this was a distraction from his work but later says that his time thinking about these plates informed the work that led to his Nobel Prize in Physics.

"Then I had another thought: 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—it 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."

"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 that piddling around with the wobbling plate."

Focus on Understanding

Understand what something means before trying to commit it to memory. Not only will this make it easier to apply that concept in the future, but it will also be far easier to remember.

"After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorised everything, but they didn't know what anything meant."

Travel

There's almost no point in travelling to a foreign country if you don't experience what the culture is truly like. It's not distance that makes travel necessary, but travel that makes distance possible. This point also appears in Finite and Infinite Games.

"We weren't in Japan; we might as well have been in Europe or America!"

Always Check the Sources

"I never looked at the original data; I only read those reports, like a dope."

"I'll never make that mistake again, reading the experts' opinions."

The Feynman Technique

Feynman had a gift for breaking down and explaining incredibly complex ideas, making them simple and easy to understand. This is often attributed to the fact that he understood the difference between knowing something and knowing the name of something, and it's one of the most important reasons for his success.

There are four steps to the Feynman Learning Technique (see this Farnham Street article for more):

  1. Choose a concept you want to learn about
  2. Pretend you are teaching it to a student a ten-year-old
  3. Identify gaps in your explanation; Go back to the source material, to better understand it.
  4. Review and simplify (optional)

"'I am a professor,' I said. 'Of what?' 'Of physics—science.' 'Oh! That must be the reason,' he said. 'Reason for what?' He said, 'You see, I'm a stenotypist, and I type everything that is said here. Now, when the other fellas talk, I type what they say, but I don't understand what they're saying. But every time you get up to ask a question or to say something, I understand exactly what you mean—what the question is, and what you're saying—so I thought you can't be a professor'"

Cargo Cult Science

Cargo cult science is a form of pseudoscience in which an imagined hypothesis is offered after the fact for some observed phenomenon, and further occurrences of the phenomenon are deemed to be proof of the hypothesis (see Cargo Cult Science).

"I've concluded that it's not a scientific world."

"But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science."

"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 judgment in one particular direction or another."

Miscellaneous Quotes

"I couldn't claim that I was smarter than sixty-five other guys—but the average of sixty five other guys, certainly!"

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool."