SURELY YOU'RE JOKING MR FEYNMAN!
Definitely one of the best books I've read. To the extent that reading the notes is almost pointless, they can in no shape or form capture the charisma, character, humour, way of thinking, genuis, modesty of Feynman. I love this book for multiple reasons:
You see the man, Feymnan himself rather than the physicist. This modesty ironically makes you attribute a level of status and respect that Feymnan would have surely not enjoyed
He walks you through his growth, highs and lows with that simple, rational approach to life I very much adore, turning the book into an inspirational and strong guide to how to see your own life
He takes teachings: either through the result of actions or those explicitly told to him very seriously, as the book is chronological you can see him employ those lessons in his own life
His curiosity, lack of ego (in some ways) made him a lifelong, shamless learner
He is so charismatic, the way he describes the Nobel Prize awared day, you'd think he's waiting at a tax office, manages to perfectly navigate a "high-status" situation into a comedy that would invite and be understood by anyone
If you have any love for science, his approach to it, to learning; his thoughts on the scientific method are timeless (unfortunately) and endlessly valuable
On human nature
So I found hypnosis to be a very interesting experience. All the time you’re saying to yourself, “I could do that, but I won’t”—which is just another way of saying that you can’t.
I went up to him, afterwards, and told him I used to do a show in Patchogue, and we had a code, but it couldn’t do many numbers, and the range of colors was shorter. I asked him, ‘How do you carry so much information?’” The mindreader was so proud of his code that he sat down and explained the whole works to my father. My father was a salesman. He could set up a situation like that. I can’t do stuff like that.
It was such a shock to me to see that a committee of men could present a whole lot of ideas, each one thinking of a new facet, while remembering what the other fella said, so that, at the end, the decision is made as to which idea was the best—summing it all up—without having to say it three times. These were very great men indeed.
You must have been in a situation like this when you didn’t ask them right away. Right away it would have been OK. But now they’ve been talking a little bit too long. You hesitated too long. If you ask them now they’ll say “What are you wasting my time all this time for?"
“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. 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.
And 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’s made me a very happy man ever since. But it was von Neumann who put the seed in that grew into my active irresponsibility!”
“Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. 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. I’ve always lived that way. It’s nice, it’s pleasant—if you can do it. I’m lucky in my life that I can do this.
And I would go along and I would see people building a bridge, or they’d be making a new road, and I thought, they’re crazy, they just don’t understand, they don’t understand. Why are they making new things? It’s so useless.
“How much do you value life?” “Sixty-four.” “Why did you say ‘sixty-four’?” “How are you supposed to measure the value of life?” “No! I mean, why did you say ‘sixty-four,’ and not ‘seventy-three,’ for instance?” “If I had said ‘seventy-three,’ you would have asked me the same question!”
It was absurd. The other offers had made me feel worse, up to a point. They were expecting me to accomplish something. But this offer was so ridiculous, so impossible for me ever to live up to, so ridiculously out of proportion. The other ones were just mistakes; this was an absurdity! I laughed at it while I was shaving, thinking about it. And then I thought to myself, “You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!” It was a brilliant idea: 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. It wasn’t a failure on my part that the Institute for Advanced Study expected me to be that good; it was impossible. It was clearly a mistake—and the moment I appreciated the possibility that they might be wrong, I realized that it was also true of all the other places, including my own university. I am what I am, and if they expected me to be good and they’re offering me some money for it, it’s their hard luck.
Suddenly I got an idea: I realized that the purpose of the $35 was to make the trip to Buffalo more attractive, and the way to do that is to spend the money. So I decided to spend the $35 to entertain myself each time I went to Buffalo, and see if I could make the trip worthwhile.
So I learned how to look at life in a way that’s different from the way it is where I come from. First, they weren’t in the same hurry that I was. And second, if it’s better for you, never mind! So I gave the lectures in the morning and enjoyed the beach in the afternoon. And had I learned that lesson earlier, I would have learned Portuguese in the first place, instead of Spanish.
But when they struggled with English, they’d say “ahp” or “doon,” and I knew which way it was, even though the pronunciation was lousy and the grammar was all screwed up. So I realized that if I was going to talk to them and try to teach them, it would be better for me to talk in Portuguese, poor as it was. It would be easier for them to understand.
...what I call “Feynman’s Portuguese,” which I knew couldn’t be the same as real Portuguese, because I could understand what I was saying, while I couldn’t understand what the people in the street were saying.
You see, I get such fun out of thinking that I don’t want to destroy this most pleasant machine that makes life such a big kick. It’s the same reason that, later on, I was reluctant to try experiments with LSD in spite of my curiosity about hallucinations.
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.
I got a kick out of succeeding at something I wasn’t supposed to be able to do.
It was a kind of one-upmanship, where nobody knows what’s going on, and they’d put the other one down as if they did know. They all fake that they know, and if one student admits for a moment that something is confusing by asking a question, the others take a high-handed attitude, acting as if it’s not confusing at all, telling him that he’s wasting their time.
I had a way of having adventures which is hard to explain: it’s like fishing, where you put a line out and then you have to have patience. When I would tell someone about some of my adventures, they might say, “Oh, come on—let’s do that!” So we would go to a bar to see if something will happen, and they would lose patience after twenty minutes or so. You have to spend a couple of days before something happens, on average.
I thanked him for the explanation; now I understood it. I have to understand the world, you see.
When you’re young, you have all these things to worry about—should you go there, what about your mother. And you worry, and try to decide, but then something else comes up. It’s much easier to just plain decide. Never mind—nothing is going to change your mind. I did that once when I was a student at MIT. I got sick and tired of having to decide what kind of dessert I was going to have at the restaurant, so I decided it would always be chocolate ice cream, and never worried about it again—I had the solution to that problem. Anyway, I decided it would always be Caltech.
“After reading the salary, I’ve decided that I must refuse. The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do—get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things … With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I’d worry about her, what she’s doing; I’d get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn’t be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess! What I’ve always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I’ve decided that I can’t accept your offer.”
“Wait a minute,” I would say. “Is there a particular example of this general problem?” “Why yes; of course.” “Good. Give me one example.” That was for me: I can’t understand anything in general unless I’m carrying along in my mind a specific example and watching it go. Some people think in the beginning that I’m kind of slow and I don’t understand the problem, because I ask a lot of these “dumb” questions: “Is a cathode plus or minus? Is an anion this way, or that way?” “He thinks I’m following the steps mathematically, but that’s not what I’m doing. I have the specific, physical example of what he’s trying to analyze, and I know from instinct and experience the properties of the thing. So when the equation says it should behave so-and-so, and I know that’s the wrong way around, I jump up and say, “Wait! There’s a mistake!"
I’ll never make that mistake again, reading the experts’ opinions. Of course, you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do, and that’s the end of you.
“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!”
But this theory doesn’t take into account the real reason for the differences between countries—that is, the development of new techniques for growing food, the development of machinery to grow food and to do other things, and the fact that all this machinery requires the concentration of capital. It isn’t the stuff, but the power to make the stuff, that is important. But I realize now that these people were not in science; they didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand technology; they didn’t understand their time.
There were a lot of fools at that conference—pompous fools—and pompous fools drive me up the wall. Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools—guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus—THAT, I CANNOT STAND! An ordinary fool isn’t a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible! And that’s what I got at the conference, a bunch of pompous fools, and I got very upset. I’m not going to get upset like that again, so I won’t participate in interdisciplinary conferences any more.
And although I tried to keep my trap shut, when you get into a situation like that, where you’re sitting around a table with all these “important people” discussing these “important problems,” you can’t keep your mouth shut, even if you know nothing whatsoever! So I made some comments in that discussion, too.
So I concluded: a) if I had made an important contribution, it was sheer luck; b) anybody else could have done as well, but most people could have done better, and c) this flattery should wake me up to the fact that I am not capable of contributing much.
Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China’s nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China’s nose is, and you average it. And that would be very “accurate” because you averaged so many people. But it’s no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don’t improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.
I couldn’t claim that I was smarter than sixty-five other guys—but the average of sixty five other guys, certainly!
“Do you have a receipt for the parking?” “No, but it cost $2.35 to park my car.” “But we have to have a receipt.” “I told you how much it cost. If you don’t trust me, why do you let me tell you what I think is good and bad about the schoolbooks?”
I feel that human beings should treat human beings like human beings. And unless I’m going to be treated like one, I’m not going to have anything to do with them! They feel bad? They feel bad. I feel bad, too. We’ll just let it go.
He was in the uniforms business, so he knew the difference between a man with a uniform on, and with the uniform off—it’s the same man.
“On the contrary,” I answered. “It’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance—gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood—so it’s the subject that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!”
These people who copy things never have the courage to make up something really different. If you find something that is really new, it’s got to have something different.
Samuel Johnson said, If you see a dog walking on his hind legs, it’s not so much that he does it well, as that he does it at all.
I realized that other people had found the sense-deprivation tank somewhat frightening, but to me it was a pretty interesting invention. I wasn’t afraid because I knew what it was: it was just a tank of Epsom salts.
Nobody knew. 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.
“Oh,” I say, “you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology.” They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.”
The other work on the phage I never wrote up—Edgar kept asking me to write it up, but I never got around to it. That’s the trouble with not being in your own field: You don’t take it seriously. I did write something informally on it. I sent it to Edgar, who laughed when he read it. It wasn’t in the standard form that biologists use—first, procedures, and so forth. I spent a lot of time explaining things that all the biologists knew. Edgar made a shortened version, but I couldn’t understand it. I don’t think they ever published it. I never published it directly.
But that shows you how much I trusted these “real guys.” The painter had told me so much stuff that was reasonable that I was ready to give a certain chance that there was an odd phenomenon I didn’t know. I was expecting pink, but my set of thoughts were, “The only way to get yellow will be something new and interesting, and I’ve got to see this.” 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.
But if you’ve ever worked with computers, you understand the disease—the delight in being able to see how much you can do. But he got the disease for the first time, the poor fellow who invented the thing.
But even today I meet lots of people who sooner or later get me into a conversation about UFOs, or astrology, or some form of mysticism, expanded consciousness, new types of awareness, ESP, and so forth. And I’ve concluded that it’s not a scientific world.
Yet these things are said to be scientific. We study them. And I think ordinary people with commonsense ideas are intimidated by this pseudoscience. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way—or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one. Or a parent of bad boys, after disciplining them in one way or another, feels guilty for the rest of her life because she didn’t do “the right thing,” according to the experts. So we really ought to look into theories that don’t work, and science that isn’t science.
They’re doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn’t work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they’re missing something essential, because the planes don’t land.
That is the idea that we all hope you have learned in studying science in school—we never explicitly say what this is, but just hope that you catch on by all the examples of scientific investigation.
So it’s the implication which has been conveyed, not the fact, which is true, and the difference is what we have to deal with.
We’ve learned from experience that the truth will come out. Other experimenters will repeat your experiment and find out whether you were wrong or right. Nature’s phenomena will agree or they’ll disagree with your theory. And, although you may gain some temporary fame and excitement, you will not gain a good reputation as a scientist if you haven’t tried to be very careful in this kind of work.
But this 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’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.
I think that’s kind of dishonest. If you’re representing yourself as a scientist, then you should explain to the layman what you’re doing—and if they don’t want to support you under those circumstances, then that’s their decision.
One example of the principle is this: If you’ve made up your mind to test a theory, or you want to explain some idea, you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make the argument look good. We must publish both kinds of results.
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 heed 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.
On having your own, different toolbox
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.
“If he’s been trying the same thing for a week, and I’m trying it and can’t do it, it ain’t the way to do it!”
“Don’t you know how to square numbers near 50?” he says. “You square 50—that’s 2500—and subtract 100 times the difference of your number from 50 (in this case it’s 2), so you have 2300. If you want the correction, square the difference and add it on. That makes 2304.”
I went in and did something that young men who have had no experience in giving talks often do—I put too many equations up on the blackboard. You see, a young fella doesn’t know how to say, “Of course, that varies inversely, and this goes this way … because everybody listening already knows; they can see it. But he doesn’t know. He can only make it come out by actually doing the algebra—and therefore the reams of equations.
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”—it’s just psychological.
(those who aren't teaching) These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come. Nothing happens because 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!
If you’re 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? 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. So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.
I now understand it much better. First of all, a young man doesn’t realize how much time it takes to prepare good lectures, for the first time, especially—and to give the lectures, and to make up exam problems, and to check that they’re sensible ones. I was giving good courses, the kind of courses where I put a lot of thought into each lecture. But I didn’t realize that that’s a lot of work! So here I was, “burned out,” reading the Arabian Nights and feeling depressed about myself.
But if, instead, you were to write, ‘When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence.”‘ Then someone will go home and try it. Then there’s an experience of nature.” I used that example to show them, but it didn’t make any difference where I would have put my finger in the book; it was like that everywhere.
So the drawing teacher has this problem of communicating how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teacher has the problem of always teaching techniques, rather than the spirit, of how to go about solving physical Problems.
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?
I’m an objective scientist, and it seemed to me that since the only thing the kids in school are going to get is the books (and the teachers get the teacher’s manual, which I would also get), any extra explanation from the company was a distortion. So I didn’t want to speak to any of the publishers and always replied, “You don’t have to explain; I’m sure the books will speak for themselves."
They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn’t understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.
Nobody ever does that except, maybe, to then take the average temperature of the stars, but not to find out the total temperature of all the stars! It was awful! All it was was a game to get you to add, and they didn’t understand what they were talking about. It was like reading sentences with a few typographical errors, and then suddenly a whole sentence is written backwards. The mathematics was like that. Just hopeless!
On flow/working in your field
But then a miracle occurred, as it has occurred again and again in my life, and it’s very lucky for me: the moment I start to think about the physics, and have to concentrate on what I’m explaining, nothing else occupies my mind—I’m completely immune to being nervous. So after I started to go, I just didn’t know who was in the room. I was only explaining this idea, that’s all.
I say “No, no, you’re crazy. It’ll go like this.” And he says, “Just a moment,” and explains how he’s not crazy, I’m crazy. And we keep on going like this. 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 turned out that’s exactly what he 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.
He was doing what I was supposed to be good at, ten times better. That was quite a lesson to me.
“I was always practicing my obsession.”
By this time most of the people had drifted off. They didn’t have the patience to watch me do this, but the only way to solve such a thing is patience!
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.
So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I’ll never accomplish anything, I’ve got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I’m going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.
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.
Actually, there was a certain amount of genuine quality to my guesses. I had a scheme, which I still use today when somebody is explaining something that I’m trying to understand: I keep making up examples. For instance, the mathematicians would come in with a terrific theorem, and they’re all excited. As they’re telling me the conditions of the theorem, I construct something which fits all the conditions. You know, you have a set (one ball)—disjoint (two halls). Then the balls turn colors, grow hairs, or whatever, in my head as they put more conditions on. Finally they state the theorem, which is some dumb thing about the ball which isn’t true for my hairy green ball thing, so I say, “False!”
It gives somebody, individually, pleasure. You can make something that somebody likes so much that they’re depressed, or they’re happy, on account of that damn thing you made.
I understood that to sell a drawing is not to make money, but to be sure that it’s in the home of someone who really wants it; someone who would feel bad if they didn’t have it. This was interesting. So I decided to sell my drawings.
“Madame Curie Observing the Radiations from Radium.” The message I intended to convey was, nobody thinks of Madame Curie as a woman, as feminine, with beautiful hair, bare breasts, and all that. They only think of the radium part.