“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” by Richard P. Feynman
You can read more structured notes on this book here. It was originally posted on my newsletter.
Like any great genius in Feynman’s day, he got his start fixing and playing with science through radios. He’d take them apart and put them back together again, only making them better than they were before. Through this, he got job fixing broken radios. In one instance, he made quite an impression on someone.
The radio in question was made a funny noise when it first turned on but stopped after awhile and was fine. Not an ideal situation, but hey at least the radio still worked. When Feynman got the scene to assess the damage, he heard the sound and the following silence, “How can that happen?” he thinks to himself.
He starts walking back and forth, thinking. “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…” Evidently this took quite some time because the guy says to him, “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 fixed the problem. The guy giving him trouble at first reversed his stance, getting Feynman more jobs and telling everyone, “He fixes radios by thinking!” “The whole idea of thinking to fix a radio–” Feynman writes, “a little buy stops and thinks, and figures out how to do it–he never that was possible.”
While working at a hotel his aunt owned, Feynman did a lot of odd jobs. One of those jobs was cutting vegetables in the kitchen, and specifically string beans, into one-inch pieces. It was a convoluted and inefficient process he had to follow, so he changed it up.
“I sat down at a wooden table outside the kitchen, put a bowl in my lap, and stuck a very sharp knife into the table at a forty-five degree angle away from me. Then I put a pile of string beans on each side, and I’d pick out a bean, one in each hand, and bring it towards me with enough speed that it would slice, and the pieces would slide into the bowl that was in my lap.”
This was much more efficient and got the attention of his boss who asked him what he was doing. While answering, Feynman missed a string bean and put his finger through the knife. Instead of having a bunch of beans cut, now he couldn’t use any of them because they were soiled with blood. That was the end of cutting experiments.
Sometimes, truth works. For whatever reason, Feynman decided to take the door off of his fraternity house in the middle of the night as a prank. In the morning, everyone asked who took the door. Going around one by one, they would ask each member if they took the door. Being serious, Feynman admitted to taking it: “Yeah, I took the door.” But his mates thought he was joking. “Cut it out Feynman; this is serious!”
When you have a different box of tools than everyone else, you can do things they can’t. Feynman learned, though Advanced Calculus, how to solve integrals in a way that wasn’t commonly taught at MIT or Princeton. Therefore, 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’ve learned any skill untraditionally, you may feel like you don’t know everything people who attended university for that skill do, but you might learn 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 everyone else before you had: not right.
While working at Los Almos, every now and then a lieutenant from the Army would come down and check on their work. Feynman’s boss told him that since he was a civillian 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.”
Knowledge is power. Be careful who you share information with. If someone isn’t telling you something, it may be because you’re the lieutenant.
Hans Bethe is one of the most remarkable physicists to ever live. Feynman crossed paths with him multiple times at Los Alamos and made quite an impression. During the early stages of the project, Bethe needed someone to bounce his ideas off of. Feynman became that guy because he said it like it truly was, not afraid of his stature. “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.’ 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, an even more remarkable scientist than Bethe, that Feynman was the guy to talk to when they had a crazy idea. “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.”
“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.”
Feynman famously bashed the mission statement of the Institute for Advanced Study (IAS). Though it was home to the likes of John von Neumann, Albert Einstein, and Robert Oppenheimer, its principles, according to Feynman, were misguided.
IAS was started as a research institution. It promised to provide a salary and a place to work for the most brilliant minds in science and math without the hinderance of teaching courses, as was the custom with most universities. Feynman hated this.
> I don’t believe I can really do without teaching. The reason is, I have to have something so that when I don’t have any ideas and I’m not getting anywhere I can say to myself, ‘At least I’m living; at least I’m _doing_ something; I’m making _some_ contribution. > > When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specifically selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get an idea for awhile: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting ideas. I believe in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depressions worms inside of you, and you begin to _worry_ about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come. Nothing happens when there’s not enough _real_ activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing! > > In any thinking process there are moments when everything is going good and you’ve got wonderful ideas. Teaching is an interruption, and so it’s the greatest pain in the neck in the world. And then there are the _longer_ periods of time when not much is coming to you. You’re not getting any ideas, and if you’re doing nothing at all, it drives you nuts! You can’t even say “Well, at least I’m teaching my class.” > > If you’re teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things 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? Are there any new thoughts you can make about 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’re rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it. > > 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, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they _remind_ me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind _yourself_ of these things.
When you can, it’s important to follow your curiosity and wonder. It may just win you a Nobel Prize. At least, it did for Feynman. Here’s the story.
Within a week of starting as a professor at Cornell, Feynman saw some guy throw a plate with a medallion of Cornell in the center of it. While it was spinning around in the air, 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 come 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.”
One of Feynman’s many life lessons can be learned from the stories about him in a bar or a nightclub. Here is an interesting one.
While Feynman was out one night, he asked “The Master” for advice on picking up girls. The Master taught Feynman it wasn’t as hard as he was making it to be. He said you simply buy them a drink and then ask them to sleep with you.
After a few failed attempts, it worked! Feynman was surprised, but this wouldn’t become a regular habit of his.
Still, there is a unique insight he makes: “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.”
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.
Don’t let anything master you. Be your own master.
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 became lonely.
While 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 just two years.
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 goes, “What were Socrates’s ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty?” Sadly, the student can’t answer. So he asks the student, “What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?” At this, he tells you everything, word for word that Socrates said, in Greek. But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was 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, but it describes how nature works and what happens in the world. It’s important, always, to make sure you’re actually learning and not just memorizing