No. 484 — August 7, 2022
Brain Food is a weekly newsletter full of timeless insights you can use.
A large part of wisdom is knowing what to ignore. A large part of expertise is knowing where to place your attention. If you can master them, the seven tricks Feynman created will help you avoid a lot of errors.
Alan Watts on the difference between the world that should exist and the one that does:
Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman describes a dismal first-grade science book that attempts to teach kids about energy by showing a series of pictures about a wind-up dog toy and asking, “What makes it move?”
For Feynman, this was the wrong approach because it was too abstract. You can easily fool yourself into thinking you understand something when you don’t. Saying that energy made the dog move was equal to saying ‘movability makes it move.’
Staying at the level of the abstract imparts no real understanding. Kids might subsequently get the question right on a test if they have a decent memory. But they aren’t going to have any real understanding of what energy actually is.
Echoing Albert Einstein, Feynman goes on to describe a more useful approach.
Perhaps I can make the difference a little clearer this way: if you ask a child what makes the toy dog move, you should think about what an ordinary human being would answer. The answer is that you wound up the spring; it tries to unwind and pushes the gear around.
What a good way to begin a science course! Take apart the toy; see how it works. See the cleverness of the gears; see the ratchets. Learn something about the toy, the way the toy is put together, the ingenuity of people devising the ratchets and other things. That’s good.
Taking things apart allows us to see how they work. It also gives us context for how things fit together. But you need to do more than take things apart to learn. You need to recombine them.
Using the Feynman Technique to explain what we’ve learned surfaces areas that we don’t understand.
When you write things out in simple language, misunderstanding has no place to hide.
Predicting the Future→ “Watch for the curious and interesting intersections between very large things. Look for points of contact or points of conflict. Pick two enormous forces and wonder how they connect.”
Quiet → “We just wanted to be around people in places where nobody told us to shush.”
(Another thought… As Paul Graham observed, quiet is good for thinking, and thinking is how you get rich.)
Mosquitoes → Why do you never see Mosquitoes at Disney Land?
P.S. Some beautiful letterhead.