Thursday, February 12, 2004

More pieces of Feynman

Driving under the influence of Feynman seems to have touched off some discussion over at Blogcritics, where I repost some of my work. Scroll down to the end to read and participate in the Feynman free-for-all.

If you're interested, here are some of my other Blogcritics posts, all of which have also appeared on NanoBot.

Blogcritics is an excellent conglomeration of bloggers, by the way, and it certainly gets my vote for a blog site that will "make it" after the blog hype settles down and only the profitable survive. Not that I'm any kind of Website soothsayer, but way back during the go-go late '90s, I had faith that would live to tell the greatest economic boom story ever told, and I was right. Some of my contributions from a few years and career turns back can be found here and here.

Back to Feynman. In my previous post, I talked about how the nanotech founding father's words get me through my morning commute. Feynman was big on making science understandable to everyday slobs like me. I've written about this subject before, and I do wish that I had been around during his heyday. But I wonder how I would have handled this interview, relayed by Robert P. Crease in a March 2001 article in Physics Web, Revenge of the Science Writer.

    "In my own encounter with Feynman - which, incidentally, is recounted in the epilogue to James Gleick's biography Genius ( ) - I asked him questions about episodes of his intellectual development. Feynman's replies were direct, but accompanied by intense curiosity about why I was asking; he sought to learn. Then I asked him about progress in science. This did not interest him. A physiological change in his face told me that I had abruptly gone from scholar to scribbler.

    All at once he grew angry, stood up, and began shouting. "It's a dumb question," he yelled, "I don't know how to answer it. Cancel everything I said!" He slammed his fist into the mountains of papers on his desk, then strode to the door. "It's all so stupid. All of these interviews are always so damned useless." He walked down the corridor, shouting: "It's goddamned useless to talk about these things! It's a complete waste of time! The history of these things is nonsense! You're trying to make something difficult and complicated out of something that's simple and beautiful!"

    In that instant, witnessing his curiosity evaporate, I realized this had nothing to do with me, nor with contempt for outsiders, nor with scorn for history. Rather, it had everything to do with Feynman's absorption in his own work - the same kind of absorption that made him a great physicist.

    That was one tape I kept."

I suppose flying off the handle is not the sole duty of business public relations specialists.

If you're still with me, I wanted to quote some more Feynman and then throw a question out to everybody. This is another passage from the book I'm "reading" (listening to), "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" (

). It's from a 1979 interview he did with Omni magazine:

    FeynmanOmni: Will a historian of science someday trace the careers of your students as others have done with the students of Rutherford and Niels Bohr and Fermi?

    Feynman: I doubt it. I'm disappointed with my students all the time. I'm not a teacher who knows what he's doing.

    Omni: But you can trace influence the other way. Say, the influence on you of Hans Bethe or John Wheeler.

    Feynman: Sure. But I don't know the effect I'm having. Maybe it's just my character. I don't know. I'm not a psychologist or sociologist. I don't know how to understand people, including myself. You ask, 'How can this guy teach? How can he be motivated if he doesn't know what he's doing?'

    Well, as a matter of fact, I love to teach. I love to think of new ways of looking at things as I explain them, to make them clearer. But maybe I'm not making them clearer. Probably what I'm doing is entertaining myself. I've learned how to live without knowing. I don't have to be sure I'm succeeding, as I said before about science.

    I think my life is fuller because I don't know what I'm doing. I'm delighted with the width of the world."

I've seen CalTech in my site stats before. Do any of you have a Feynman story you'd like to share? I'm not really an "historian of science," but I'd like to hear from some of Feynman's former students to see how far his influence stretched. If nothing else, we can all at least read some more bongo-playin' "Feynman stories."


Related Post:
Driving under the influence of Feynman

Related Small Times story
Nanotech for the Common Man

PACKAGE: The Feynman Lectures on Physics: Commemorative Issue, Three Volume Set

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