Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!

By

Richard Feynman

Read in
June, 2020
My rating:
8
/10

Summary

Many of the anecdotes are dated, he was perhaps something of a misogynistic playboy, and it's obvious that he was a pain in the ass to many people. Yet here is the most brilliant collection of anecdotes that show you the mind of an extraordinary man, unafraid of what people thought of him and utterly obsessed with scientific truth and curious to the end. Funny, irreverent, well-observed and honest.

Notes

You Should Really Think About Something Before You Act

There is virtue in taking time to think before acting. You don't always need to act, but to sit and think with a problem for a time before taking things forwards. 'He fixes radios by thinking!'

'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.'

Innovation - real innovation - is a hard thing to pull off in the real world. p36

Learning is Fragile If We Don't Learn Properly

Learning can be fragile if we have not learnt in the proper way. If we learn by rote or by some system, then concepts feel alien when not presented to us in the way we know them.

If we put in the work to really understand why something is the way it is, not just the what of it then we are in a much better position.

'I don't know what's the matter with people: they don't learn by understanding; they learn by some other way [...] their knowledge is so fragile! [...] This kind of fragility is fairly common, even with more learned people.'

Don't Be Afraid to Build and Get Rough With the Things You Use - It's Better to Understand Your Tools

There is a value to building the things you use, or at the very least having a deep understanding of how these things work.

To get results, you must be rugged when you use your tools. Do not be afraid to break something. Do not revere it. If you really understand it, it can be fixed.

'I suddenly realised why Princeton was getting results. They were working with the instrument. They built the instrument; they knew where everything was, they knew how everything worked, there was no engineer involved, except maybe he was working there too.'

Get Out of Your Expertise Bubble and Spend Time With Experts From Another Field

There is a huge value to going and 'sitting with another group'; take yourself out of your usual seat, and plonk yourself down where you don't know anyone and the ideas are unfamiliar. That's when interesting things begin to happen.

This is what Feynman did when he was at Princeton. He started off spending his time with physicists, but then spent time with Philosophy students and then Biologists, making any number of interesting connections and associations that he would otherwise not have done.

It's a simple move (if a little daunting at first) that allows serendipity to flourish. Feynman spent close to a year working in Biology, not Physics.

He does have one word of caution about working in a field that is not your own, though, and that is that you may not take it as seriously as if it were your own.

'I always do that - get into something and see how far I can go.'

You might also make some mistakes, and they may even have quite funny consequences: 'I began to read the paper. It kept talking about extensors and flexors, the gastrocnemius muscle, and so on. This and that muscle were named, but I hadn't the foggiest idea of where they were located in relation to the nerves or to the cat. So I went to the librarian in the biology section and asked her if she could find me a map of the cat. 'A map of the cat, sir? she asked, horrified. 'You mean a zoological chart!' From then on there rumors about some dumb biology student who was looking for a 'map of the cat.''

Your 'Normal' Is Different From Others

While at Cornell, Feynman by chance attends a dance attended purely by deaf people. He noticed that, while they dance, everyone's always turning their heads to make sure they don't miss some signal from the other. Nobody can call out to get their attention, of course, so they must always be looking.

'They were completely comfortable with each other. It was my problem to be comfortable. It was a wonderful experience.'

If You Know Something to Be True, Be Sure of It and Why - Then, Hold Fast

It's important to trust what you know to be true, and to hold on to that knowledge when faced with unusual claims from sources you cannot trust.

Feynman gives the example of a painter who claims you can make yellow paint from white and red. Feynman can't believe it - what if he's been wrong all these years about light, and colour?! - it then turns out that the painter, in showing him how to do this miraculous transformation, has forgotten the tube of highly concentrated... yellow paint that he puts into the mix of white and red.

Yet, for a moment, even though he knew it couldn't be true, Feynman admits to suspending his own beliefs in case he could be wrong.

'I've very often made mistakes in my physics by thinking the theory isn't as good as it really is, thinking that there are lots of complications that are going to spoil it - an attitude that anything can happen, in spite of what you're pretty sure should happen.'

It's Important to Know What Your Unique Skills and Tools Are

Ask yourself - what's in your box of tools? How is it different to everybody else's? What can yours fix that nobody else can? If it's no different to anyone else's, what are you doing to improve it?

Today, we might call it a 'stack' but the same principle applies no matter your situation.

Good Ideas Can Happen When We Disagree With Each Other

You won't have good ideas if you spend all your time agreeing with people and saying 'yes', no matter how senior they are compared to you.

It depends on the context, but friction is a necessary ingredient in making sense of the world. If you say A, and I say A, we'll agree on A and that'll be that. But if you say A and I say 'No, B!' we'll have a shot at having a good row that will generate a deeper understanding of both A and B.

We might find that A is right. We might find that B is right. We might even find that both are wrong and that we need to look for C instead.

Truth and Honesty Are Far More Valuable Than Just Saying Yes All the Time

Being honest with the way you assess the world is vital, no matter who you are dealing with.

Not everyone can get away with this all the time, so if you are able to make it into a position in life where you can, do.

He particularly impressed a far more senior scientist, Niels Bohr, who said of him 'He's the only guy who's not afraid of me, and will say when I've got a crazy idea. [So next time] get that guy and we'll talk with him first.'

'I never knew who I was talking to. If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy. If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition.'

Feynman at one point argues that secrets should be divulged to some junior scientists so that they might better understand why they were working on what they were working on.

'Complete transformation! They began to invent ways of doing it better. They improved the scheme. They worked at night. They didn't need supervising in the night; they didn't need anything. They understood everything; they invented several of the programs that we used.'

The Bomb

There's only really one moment in the book where he talks about the bomb and the magnitude of what they had done through the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos.

He finds a friend, despondent, while everyone else is celebrating the success of the first test. They all started for a good reason, to help win and end the war, 'then you're working very hard to accomplish something and it's a pleasure, it's excitement. And you stop thinking, you know; you just stop.'

His friend was the only one of them that had kept on thinking about it, and he was upset.

Feynman spends a whole chapter talking about Japan and how wonderful the country is, but not once does he mention the bomb, ask about it, tells you about being asked about it, or make any visit to Hiroshima or Nagasaki. Left wondering what his thoughts were on the topic.

Teach What You Know

Teaching what you know can be a source of fun and delight.

'The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I've thought about at times and then given up on.'

'You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It's their mistake, not my failing.'

Not Every Project or Thing That You Work on Has to Be Important

What you work on can be frivolous or fun or whatever you want it to be. But it might end up becoming important, precisely because you are having fun and enjoying what you're doing.

What matters is that you enjoy what you're doing and you're doing it for the love of it; do what flows. From there comes opportunity and ideas and the rest. If you try to force an idea without the fun and the enjoyment you'll likely suffer.

'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.'

What he was working on led to the creation of Feynman diagrams, which was part of the work he did that earnt him the Nobel Prize for Physics.

Shortcuts to Knowledge Only Take You So Far - It's Better to Go the Long Way Round

There is a great importance in the fundamental knowing of something to be able to get value from it.

If you truly know numbers, for instance, you'll beat someone with an abacus or a calculator most of the time. Taking the shortcut only gets you so far some of the time, but real knowledge will take you further than anyone else.

There is a great difference between learning something and really knowing it. Anyone can learn anything, but not anyone can truly know it.

Truly knowing something means understanding it from all angles in all scenarios, even ones that seem familiar - you need to be able to see the same concepts at work to show that you understand, and know.

If you just learn something you will only be able to repeat what you learn. Truly knowing and understanding requires more effort and work than just learning something.

To really learn, become a student. Truly adopt the mindset, give in to it, accept that you don't know, that you are not the master and that you have much to learn. Give up your pride. That's the only way to really learn anything.

Scientific Integrity Is More Than Just Presenting What You've Found

On scientific truth, scientific integrity - it needs to be a sort of utter honesty.

'Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can, if you know anything at all to be wrong, or possibly wrong - to explain it.'

The theory you have must not just fit the ideas you had that prompted you to create the theory - you must also show how it fits other things. You must give all the information to, 'help others judge the value of your contribution: not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.'

More of this, but in your inbox.

If you found that interesting, why not sign up to my mailing list? You'll join several hundred others receiving interesting updates about curious things that you won't see here on my blog. The emails are infrequent, it's easy to unsubscribe and I don't have anything to sell you. Neat.