9 Lessons on Curiosity and Adventure from Richard Feynman
2023-04-14

20th-century scientists often embody a certain stereotype that befits their profession as stuffy and dry, only caring about smoking pipes and reading books. Richard P. Feynman – and his bongo-banging, night-club hanging, lock-picking self – fit none of them. If you liked to talk, you might enjoy riding shotgun with him behind the wheel. If you didn’t, you might ask to be let out at the next light.

Born just before the end of WWI, he attended MIT and Princeton, where he pulled his fair share of pranks. His “masterpiece” came one morning when he took a door off the hinges of a room and hid it because, well, why not? When those in his fraternity woke up, they noticed the missing door. “Feynman! Did you take the door?” Oh yeah! I took the door. But they didn’t believe him. His tone was too sarcastic. The mystery went on for a week until Feynman left a picture of where the door was on the table overnight, and they found it. Later, when he finally admitted to taking it, everyone accused him of being a liar, but he wasn’t! He said he took the door. It was everyone else’s fault for not believing him. Funny stuff.

During his time at Princeton, he started work on the Manhattan Project. In April 1943, he moved to Los Alamos, New Mexico, to continue work on the atom bomb. In 1946, he became a professor at Cornell. He lived and worked in Brazil and Japan a few times before settling at Cal Tech.

That paragraph does not do his life justice.

Here are (some of) the most insightful and fun stories from Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!

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1. Spend more time thinking about the problem

Like any great genius in Feynman’s day, he first learned science by playing with radios. He’d take them apart and reassemble them, only better. Fixing radios became one of his first jobs. In one instance, he made quite an impression on someone.

The broken radio in question made a funny noise when it first turned on, but the noise stopped after a while, and then it would work fine. When Feynman got to the scene to assess the damage, he heard the problem and thought, “How can that happen?”

He starts walking back and forth, thinking to himself, “One way it can happen is that the tubes are ready to go, and there’s nothing feeding in, or there’s some back circuit feeding in, or something wrong in the beginning part…” This thinking went on for some time but was interrupted by shouts from the customer, “What are you doing? You come to fix the radio, but you’re only walking back and forth!”

“I’m thinking!” Feynman snaps back. He then thought to take the tubes out and reverse the order completely, thinking maybe they’d heat up better if they were reversed. This worked. The customer was amazed, telling everyone he knew, “He fixes radios by thinking!” Upon reflection, Feynman writes, “The whole idea of thinking to fix a radio – a little guy stops and thinks, and figures out how to do it – he never that was possible.”

2. Use a different set of tools

When you have a different set of tools than everyone else, you can do things they can’t.

Feynman learned, through Advanced Calculus, how to solve integrals in a way not taught at MIT or Princeton. So, he was able to solve problems guys who went to those schools couldn’t. “If it was contour integration, they would have found it; if it was simple series expansion, they would have found it. Then I come along and try differentiating under the integral sign, and often it worked. So I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everyone else’s, and they tried all their tools on it before giving the problem to me.”

If you’re self-taught in a skill or profession, you may feel as if you don’t know everything people who have a degree do, but you might know other things. Just because your box of tools may differ doesn’t mean they’re worse. Never be afraid to tackle a problem in an unconventional way. The worst that could happen is you get the same result as everyone else.

3. Knowledge is power

While working at Los Almos on the Manhattan Project, every now and then, a lieutenant from the Army would come down and check on Feynman’s team’s work. Feynman’s boss told him that since he was a civilian section, the lieutenant ranked higher than any of them. “Don’t tell the lieutenant anything,” his boss ordered. “Once he begins to think he knows what we’re doing, he’ll be giving us all kinds of orders and screwing everything up.”

This story has two applications: 1) Be careful who you share information with. 2) If someone isn’t telling you something, you may be the lieutenant.

4. Say what you mean

Hans Bethe is one of the most remarkable physicists ever to live. Feynman met him multiple times at Los Alamos and made quite an impression. During the early stages of the project, Feynman became the guy Bethe brainstormed with because Feynman told him the truth; stature and importance be dammed.

“You see, when I hear about physics, I just think about physics, and I don’t know who I’m talking to,” Feynman explains, “so I say dopey things like, ‘no no you’re wrong,’ or ‘you’re crazy.’ But it turns out that’s exactly what he [Bethe] needed. I got a notch up on account of that, and I ended up as a group leader under Bethe with four guys under me.”

Bethe, remembering this interaction, told Neils Bohr, another remarkable physicist, that Feynman was a good brainstorming partner. “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 [Feynman] and we’ll talk to him first,” Bohr told Bethe.

“I was always dumb in that way,” Feynman writes. “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.”

Don’t calculate someone’s status or hierarchy into the equation of what makes an idea good or bad. Say what you mean, no matter who it’s to.

5. Follow your curiosity

Within a week of starting at Cornell, Feynman saw some guy throw a plate in the air with a medallion of Cornell in the center of it. While it was spinning around, Feynman noticed the medallion was spinning around faster than the rest of the plate. “I had nothing to do, so I started figuring out the motion of the rotating plate,” he writes. “I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate–two to one. It comes out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, ‘Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?’” Eventually, he worked at the motion for those particles and how the acceleration makes it two to one.

“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.”

It’s important to follow your curiosity and wonder – “piddle.” It may just win you a Nobel Prize.

6. The world works differently than how you learned it worked growing up

About one in every five of Feynman’s stories takes place with him in a bar or a nightclub. What he ends up learning in those stories usually has nothing to do with either a bar or a nightclub, though. Here is an interesting one.

While Feynman was out one night, he asked “The Master” – some guy he deemed good at talking to women – for advice on picking up girls. The Master taught Feynman it wasn’t as complicated as Feynman was making it to be. He said you buy them a drink and then ask them to sleep with you. Though reluctant, he tried it out.

After some failed attempts, it worked! Feynman was surprised, but he didn’t try it again. “No matter how effective the lesson was, I never used it after that. I didn’t enjoy doing it that way. But it was interesting to know that things worked much differently from how I was brought up.”

After my wife and I got married, she told me one day she was having “jumpy legs.” I hadn’t heard that term before. She explained to me that it’s the feeling of just wanting to move your legs around, what I just called restlessness. But here’s this phrase she’s had, for 23 years of her life, that she knew, that I had never heard before.

The real world works much differently than how you learned it does growing up.

7. Be your own master

One day in Brazil, around 3:30 in the afternoon, Feynman was walking along the sidewalk across the beach and past a bar. “I suddenly got this treMENdous, strong feeling: ‘That’s just what I want; that’ll fit just right. I’d just love to have a drink right now!’ I started to walk into the bar, and suddenly thought to myself, ‘Wait a minute! It’s the middle of the afternoon. There’s nobody here. There’s no social reason to drink. Why do you have such a terribly strong feeling that you have to have a drink?–and I got scared. I never drank again, since then.”

He explains that he has such a fun time thinking that he didn’t want anything to “destroy this most pleasant machine that makes life such a big kick.” This is also the reason he was reluctant to try LSD at a later point in life.

Be your own master. Don’t let anything have control over you.

8. Don’t make decisions when you’re sad, tired, angry, or lonely.

Feynman once met a girl, Mary Lou, at Cornell. He liked her a lot, but they fought constantly. Eventually, they split up. But after another year of dating without any progress, he was as lonely as a horse in a cow pasture.

While staying in Brazil, he wrote a letter to her and proposed. “Somebody who’s wise could have told me that was dangerous,” he writes. “When you’re away and you’ve got nothing but paper, and you’re feeling lonely, you remember all the good things and you can’t remember the reasons you had the arguments.”

The arguments started again right away, and the marriage lasted two years.

9. Seek understanding, not memorization

Feynman tells this story about a Greek scholar who loved the Greek language, but in his country, no one studied Greek. But he goes to another country and finds everyone studying Greek. So he goes up to a student who is getting his degree in Greek and asks, “What were Socrates’s ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty?”

Sadly, the student couldn’t answer. So he asks the student, “What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?” At this, he knows the answer. Word for word he explains what Socrates said, in Greek, in the Third Symposium. But what Socrates said in the Third Symposium was about the relationship between Truth and Beauty!

Feynman explains, “What this Greek scholar discovers is, the students in another country learn Greek by first learning how to pronounce the letters, then the words, and then the sentences and paragraphs. They can recite, word for word, what Socrates said, without realizing that those Greek words actually mean something. To the student, they are all artificial sounds.”

To Feynman, knowledge meant something real. It wasn’t just words and sounds; it described how nature works and what happens in the world. It’s important, always, to make sure you’re actually learning and not just memorizing.

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