Who Is Richard Feynman? The Curious Character Who Mastered Thinking and Physics
Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was one of the great scientists and physicists of our time, truly one of the great minds of humanity. Below, we collect much of his wisdom in one place.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool.”
Richard Feynman lived from 1918 to 1988. He made his mark as an original genius, starting with his work on the Manhattan Project in his early twenties, through winning a Nobel Prize for his work in developing an understanding of quantum mechanics, and finally as a much-loved professor of undergraduate physics at Caltech.
The Feynman method of thought was developed by a man who refused conventional wisdom at all turns and who sought to build his mental computer from the ground up, starting with an understanding of mathematics at a very young age. (Feynman’s early notebooks are records of him deriving algebra, calculus, trigonometry, and various higher maths on his own, with original results and notation.)
This was how Feynman approached all knowledge: What can I know for sure, and how can I come to know it? It resulted in his famous quote, “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” Feynman believed it and practiced it in all of his intellectual work.
“When Feynman faces a problem, he’s unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks… He was so unstuck — if something didn’t work, he’d look at it another way.”
— Marvin Minsky, MIT
Outside of pure physics, such thinking helped him arrived at such counterintuitive results as the solution he derived to the Columbia Space Shuttle disaster, which he took part in investigating. Feynman quickly realized that NASA had a disconnect among its engineers and its managers, and he concluded that “For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled”. His report on the reliability — or lack thereof — of the Space Shuttle is as famous for its incisive analysis as it is for his willingness to offer a controversial finding that placed blame.
Of course, Feynman was also famous for another reason: his practical jokes and his jovial, interesting public personality, revealed in stories and books like the famous collection of anecdotes Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. Feynman was a ballbuster from an early age, telling stories of picking safes at the Manhattan Project and playing the bongos in Brazil, breaking the image of the buttoned-up physics professor.
What we take from Feynman is an absolute, unvarying pursuit of rationality and truth. Feynman would rather admit that he didn’t know something than believe in false knowledge.
Feynman was never one to settle for knowing the description of things or the accepted truths of things. Instead, he really wanted to know, and it was that burning curiosity that led him to his greatest work. Feynman was human, at times all too human, but his mind was devoted to figuring out reality the way it was.
Richard Feynman Quotes
“You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird… I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”
“I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of uncertainty about different things, but I am not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here. I don’t have to know an answer.”
“I think for lesson number one, to learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad.”
“In this age of specialization men who thoroughly know one field are often incompetent to discuss another. The great problems of the relations between one and another aspect of human activity have for this reason been discussed less and less in public.”
“It doesn’t seem to me that this fantastically marvelous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama.”
“The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to… No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”
“There is one feature I notice that is generally missing in cargo cult science [pseudoscience]… It’s a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty — a kind of leaning over backwards.”
“I don’t like honors…I’ve already got the prize: the prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it. Those are the real things.”
“The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.”
Suggested Readings on Richard Feynman
The Feynman Technique: The Best Way of Learning Anything — The famous Feynman Technique is a way of figuring out whether you really know something or you just know the name of it.
The Difference Between Knowing the Name of Something and Knowing Something — Feynman gives his most famous explanation of the difference between actually knowing something and merely knowing what it’s called.
A Few Useful Mental Tools from Richard Feynman — Feynman delivers an explanation of his favorite mental tricks for deciding whether or not something is true, especially when you’re not sure.
A Letter on What Problems to Work On — What problems should you attempt to solve? The ones you think you can solve.
Richard Feynman on Refusing an Honorary Degree, Being Driven, and Understanding His Circle of Competence — A collection of great Feynman material on not accepting honors, having drive, and knowing what you know.
Richard Feynman on Why Questions — Why ask why? What kind of why question are you actually trying to answer?
Richard Feynman on Beauty and the Flower — Who can appreciate beauty more — a scientist or a layperson? Feynman thinks it’s a scientist.
Love Letter to Feynman’s Deceased Wife — A beautiful, heartbreaking letter Feynman wrote to his deceased wife, who died of tuberculosis at a young age. This one hurts.
Feynman on the Key to Science — How would we find a new physical law? What is the key to science? Feynman answers.
Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman — The definitive biography of Richard Feynman by the great scientific writer James Gleick.
“Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!”: Adventures of a Curious Character — This one has been a bestseller for a long time for a good reason. Feynman comes across as interesting, fun, and brilliant in a series of vignettes he wrote about his life.
“What Do You Care What Other People Think?”: Further Adventures of a Curious Character — The “sequel” to Surely You’re Joking, this one is full of more Feynman goodness, including his experience investigating the Challenger explosion.
The Feynman Lectures on Physics — The famous “Red Books” on physics are still in print and still sell well because Feynman takes you from A to Z with what was known about physics around the mid-1960s. You’ll need some math, but Feynman treats the subject with more clarity and insight than anyone else.
Six Easy Pieces: Essentials of Physics Explained by Its Most Brilliant Teacher — Pulled from the Lectures, these are some of the easier and non-mathematical lectures Feynman gave on the nature of reality.
Six Not-So-Easy Pieces: Einstein’s Relativity, Symmetry, and Space-Time — The second book pulled from the Lectures, this time with slightly more challenging material, but still readable by most.
Feynman: The Graphic Novel — A fun exploration of Feynman and his ideas in graphic novel form.
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter — Feynman’s book on quantum electrodynamics is probably your best chance to understand the fundamental nature of light and energy without getting a degree in advanced physics.
The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen-Scientist — Here, Feynman takes on some topics a little closer to most of us, like the relationship between religion and science, and pseudoscience. This is a three-part lecture that was turned into a book.
The Quantum Labyrinth: How Richard Feynman and John Wheeler Revolutionized Time and Reality — The newest book about Feynman takes on his relationship with the physicist John Wheeler as his graduate student, and discusses how the two came up with some of the most compelling physical theories we know. If you’re not familiar with Wheeler, you know his work if you’ve ever heard of a “wormhole.”
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman — Yet another collection of Feynman awesomeness: writings, lectures, speeches, interviews. He was incapable of being boring.