Saturday, April 30, 2011

Versatile Mr. Richard Feynmann

I am not sure how many of you know about him. He is a nobel prize winning physicist. He is not talked about in the same breadth as Einstein or Edison and so he is not so famous (atleast I didn't know about him previously). I came to know of him from reddit where a link to one of his lectures was posted. It was very interesting. In no time, I came to his online home,  and started reading the anecdotes about him. Of particular interest was a speech given by him called - "What is Science" upon reading which I had a plenty of aha moments. Read the whole article. It is a gem. In that lecture Feynmann talks about how he learnt what science is. It is really amazing. Talking about how he got interested in science, he says

My father did it to me. When my mother was carrying me, it is reported--I am not directly aware of the conversation--my father said that "if it's a boy, he'll be a scientist." How did he do it? He never told me I should be a scientist. He was not a scientist; he was a businessman, a sales manager of a uniform company, but he read about science and loved it.When I was very young--the earliest story I know--when I still ate in a high chair, my father would play a game with me after dinner.He had brought a whole lot of old rectangular bathroom floor tiles from some place in Long Island City. We sat them up on end, one next to the other, and I was allowed to push the end one and watch the whole thing go down. So far, so good.Next, the game improved. The tiles were different colors. I must put one white, two blues, one white, two blues, and another white and then two blues--I may want to put another blue, but it must be a white. You recognize already the usual insidious cleverness; first delight him in play, and then slowly inject material of educational value.Well, my mother, who is a much more feeling woman, began to realize the insidiousness of his efforts and said, "Mel, please let the poor child put a blue tile if he wants to." My father said, "No, I want him to pay attention to patterns. It is the only thing I can do that is mathematics at this earliest level." If I were giving a talk on "what is mathematics," I would already have answered you. Mathematics is looking for patterns. (The fact is that this education had some effect. We had a direct experimental test, at the time I got to kindergarten. We had weaving in those days. They've taken it out; it's too difficult for children. We used to weave colored paper through vertical strips and make patterns. The kindergarten teacher was so amazed that she sent a special letter home to report that this child was very unusual, because he seemed to be able to figure out ahead of time what pattern he was going to get, and made amazingly intricate patterns. So the tile game did do something to me.)

Another interesting story hitting why just knowing the name of the effect or thing doesn't mean anything.

On the weekends, my father would take me for walks in the woods. He often took me for walks, and we learned all about nature, and so an, in the process. But the other children, friends of mine also wanted to go, and tried to get my father to take them. He didn't want to, because he said I was more advanced. I'm not trying to tell you how to teach, because what my father was doing was with a class of just one student; if he had a class of more than one, he was incapable of doing it.So we went alone for our walk in the woods. But mothers were very powerful in those day's as they are now, and they convinced the other fathers that they had to take their own sons out for walks in the woods. So all fathers took all sons out for walks in the woods one Sunday afternoon. The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, "See that bird standing on the stump there? What's the name of it?"I said, "I haven't got the slightest idea."He said, 'It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you much about science."I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn't tell me anything about the bird. He taught me "See that bird? It's a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it's called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird--you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way," and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.The result of this is that I cannot remember anybody's name, and when people discuss physics with me they often are exasperated when they say "the Fitz-Cronin effect," and I ask "What is the effect?" and I can't remember the name.I would like to say a word or two--may I interrupt my little tale--about words and definitions, because it is necessary to learn the words.It is not science. That doesn't mean, just because it is not science, that we don't have to teach the words. We are not talking about what to teach; we are talking about what science is. It is not science to know how to change Centigrade to Fahrenheit. It's necessary, but it is not exactly science. In the same sense, if you were discussing what art is, you wouldn't say art is the knowledge of the fact that a 3-B pencil is softer than a 2-H pencil. It's a distinct difference. That doesn't mean an art teacher shouldn't teach that, or that an artist gets along very well if he doesn't know that. (Actually, you can find out in a minute by trying it; but that's a scientific way that art teachers may not think of explaining.)In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that's all right. It's a good idea to try to see the difference, and it's a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself.

there are many such stories, about inertia, about law of conservation of energy etc.. and we can feel the wonder he felt when he learnt about that. It is such an interesting story.  I was very much impressed by this talk. So I got hold of his book 'Surely you are joking Mr Feynmann' and started reading.

In that book in one place, he talks about his experience teaching Brazilian students who would answer any question but still not understand anything. It was because of the people just learning by rote and not really understanding anything.

If you think that all he did was just study, do research and teach then you are terribly mistaken. He is a versatile genius. He, at various times, was a radio repairman, a samba player and dancer in Brazil, a tumba drum player, a very experienced professional lock-picker (his stories about how he used to pick locks in Los Alamos are very interesting), an accomplished painter (so much so that he painted commissioned pictures),  a learner and speaker of other foreign languages(Spanish, Portugese, Japanese)
,a mayan hieroglyphics solver (he loved puzzles), a mind reader (literally) , a hallucination experiencer and many more. He really had a very very interesting life. Apart from the things mentioned above regarding what is science, I also learnt a very easy way of understanding physical theories. You just have to apply that theory on a valid physical object and see if the observations in the theories are right. that is a very very easy way to understand and remember the theories. I wonder why we don't do this more often.  I read the whole book in one sitting. It is full of  really witty, funny and interesting stories. You will come out with a whole different feeling after you read the book. You will really become a lot more interested in science. Even if you don't have any interest also, it is a very good read


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