Tag: Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman on Refusing an Honorary Degree, Being Driven, and Understanding his Circle of Competence

Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track is a wonderful collection of letters written to and from the physicist and professor Richard Feynmanchampion of understanding, explainer, an exemplar of curiosity, lover of beauty, knowledge seeker, asker of questions—during his life and career in science.

The book explores the timeless qualities that we cherish in Feynman. Let’s dive a little deeper.

Driven

Feynman was precocious; it’s clear that even early in his career, he knew he had the intelligence and drive to make an impact in science. At the age of 24 he had the foresight to mention, in a letter to his parents defying their wish that he not marry a dying woman (his fiancé Arlene had tuberculosis, a deadly diagnosis in those days), that:

I have other desires and aims in the world. One of them is to contribute to physics as much as I can. This, in my mind, is of even more importance than my love for Arlene.

He worked hard at that goal, and he showed signs of enjoying the process. In letters he wrote during his time working in academia and on the atomic bomb, Feynman writes that:

I’m hitting some mathematical difficulties which I will either surmount, walk around, or go a different way—all of which consumes all of my time—but I like to do (it) very much and am very happy indeed. I have never thought so much so steadily about one problem—so if I get nowhere I really will be very disturbed—However, I have gotten somewhere, quite far—to Prof. Wheeler’s satisfaction. However the problem is not at completion, although I’m just beginning to see how far it is to the end and how we might get there (although aforementioned mathematical difficulties loom ahead)—SOME FUN!

This week has been unusual. There is an especially important problem to be worked out on the project, and it’s a lot of fun so I am working quite hard on it. I get up at about 10:30 AM after a good night’s rest, and go to work until 12:30 or 1 AM the next morning when I go back to bed. Naturally I take off about 2 hrs for my two meals. I don’t eat any breakfast, but I eat a midnight snack before I go to bed. It’s been that way for 4 or 5 days.

We see this frequently in genius-level contributors doing intensive work. It is not so much that they find the work easy, but they do find pleasure in the struggle. (There is actually another book about Feynman called “The Pleasure in Finding Things Out.”) Warren Buffett has said many times that he taps dances to work every day, and those who have spent time with him have corroborated the story. It’s not a lie. Charlie Munger has mentioned that one of the main reasons for Berkshire’s success is the fact that they enjoy the work.

Feynman is an interesting character though; for a super-genius scientist, he comes off as unusually romantic with passages like the following one, in a letter to his then-wife, Arlene:

There is a third thing you will be interested in. I love you. You are a strong and beautiful woman. You are not always as strong as other times but it rises and falls like the flow of a mountain stream. I feel I am a reservoir for your strength — without you I would be empty and weak like I was before I knew you — but your moments of strength make me strong and thus I am able to comfort you with your strength when your steam is low.

And long-time readers will remember the heart-breaking letter he wrote after she had passed away.

Honor and Honesty 

As the book rolls along and Feynman gets older and more famous, he is regularly asked to be honored. Generally, as most who have studied Feynman would know, he showed considerable discomfort with the process, which valued exclusivity and puffery over knowledge. One letter is typical of the middle-aged Feynman:

Dear George,

Yours is the first honorary degree that I have ben offered, and I thank you for considering me for such an honor.

However, I remember the work I did to get a real degree at Princeton and the guys on the same platform receiving honorary degrees without work—and felt an “honorary degree” was a debasement of the idea of a “degree which confirms certain work has been accomplished.” It is like giving an “honorary electrician’s license.” I swore then that if by chance I was ever offered one, I would not accept it.

Now at last (twenty-five years later) you have given me a chance to carry out my vow.

So thank you, but I do not wish to accept the honorary degrees you offered.

Sincerely yours,

Richard P. Feynman

He also offers his usual wit upon resigning from the National Academy of Sciences:

Dear Prof. Handler:

My request for resignation from the National Academy of Sciences is based entirely on personal psychological quirks. It represents in no way any implied or explicit criticism of the Academy, other than those characteristics that flow from the fact that most of the membership consider their installation as a significant honor.

Sincerely yours,
Richard P. Feynman

In fact, Feynman was constantly displaying his tendency towards intellectual honesty, whenever possible. He understood his circle of competence. Several letters scattered throughout his life show him essentially throwing up his hands and saying “I don’t know,” and he took pride in doing so. His general philosophy towards ignorance and learning was summed up in a statement he made in 1963 that “I feel a responsibility as a scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy…that doubt is not to be feared, but it is to be welcomed…”

The following letter was typical of his lack of intellectual arrogance, this one coming in response to something he’d written about teaching kids math in his younger years:

Dear Mrs. Cochran:

As I get more experience I realize that I know nothing whatsoever as to how to teach children arithmetic. I did write some things before I reached my present state of wisdom. Perhaps the references you heard came from the article which I enclose.

At present, however, I do not know whether I agree with my past self or not.

Wishy-washy,
Richard P. Feynman

He does it again here, opening a reply to a highly critical letter about a TV appearance with the following:

Dear Mr. Rogers,

Thank you for your letter about my KNXT interview. You are quite right that I am very ignorant about smog and many other things, including the use of Finest English.

I won the Nobel Prize for work I did in physics trying to uncover the laws of nature. The only thing I really know very much about are these laws….

***

In the end, Feynman’s greatest strength, outside of his immense scientific talent, was his basic philosophy on life. In 1954, Feynman wrote with tenderness to his mother:

Wealth is not happiness nor is swimming pools and villas. Nor is great work alone reward, or fame. Foreign places visited themselves give nothing. It is only you who bring to the places your heart, or in your great work feeling, or in your large house place. If you do this there is happiness.

Check out Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track, and learn more about life and learning from the best.

Cargo Cult Science: Richard Feynman On Believing What Isn’t True

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.”

— Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) has long been one of my favorites — for both his wisdom and heart.

Reproduced below you can find the entirety of his 1974 commencement address at Caltech entitled Cargo Cult Science.

The entire speech requires about 10 minutes to read, which is time well invested if you ask me. If you’re pressed for time, however, there are two sections I wish to draw to your attention.

In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. 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.

You’re probably chuckling at this point. Yet many of us are no better. This is all around us. Thinking is hard and we fool ourselves, in part, because it’s easy. That’s Feynman’s point.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

Your job is to find the current cargo cults.

When we start a project without determining what success looks like … when we mistake the map for the territory … when we look at outcomes without looking at process … when we blindly copy what others have done …. when we confuse correlation and causation we find ourselves on the runway.

***

Cargo Cult Science

During the Middle Ages there were all kinds of crazy ideas, such as that a piece of rhinoceros horn would increase potency. (Another crazy idea of the Middle Ages is these hats we have on today—which is too loose in my case.) Then a method was discovered for separating the ideas—which was to try one to see if it worked, and if it didn’t work, to eliminate it. This method became organized, of course, into science. And it developed very well, so that we are now in the scientific age. It is such a scientific age, in fact, that we have difficulty in understanding how­ witch doctors could ever have existed, when nothing that they proposed ever really worked—or very little of it did.

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.

Most people believe so many wonderful things that I decided to investigate why they did. And what has been referred to as my curiosity for investigation has landed me in a difficulty where I found so much junk to talk about that I can’t do it in this talk. I’m overwhelmed. First I started out by investigating various ideas of mysticism, and mystic experiences. I went into isolation tanks (they’re dark and quiet and you float in Epsom salts) and got many hours of hallucinations, so I know something about that. Then I went to Esalen, which is a hotbed of this kind of thought (it’s a wonderful place; you should go visit there). Then I became overwhelmed. I didn’t realize how much there was.

I was sitting, for example, in a hot bath and there’s another guy and a girl in the bath. He says to the girl, “I’m learning massage and I wonder if I could practice on you?” She says OK, so she gets up on a table and he starts off on her foot—working on her big toe and pushing it around. Then he turns to what is apparently his instructor, and says, “I feel a kind of dent. Is that the pituitary?” And she says, “No, that’s not the way it feels.” I say, “You’re a hell of a long way from the pituitary, man.” And they both looked at me—I had blown my cover, you see—and she said, “It’s reflexology.” So I closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating.

That’s just an example of the kind of things that overwhelm me. I also looked into extrasensory perception and PSI phenomena, and the latest craze there was Uri Geller, a man who is supposed to be able to bend keys by rubbing them with his finger. So went to his hotel room, on his invitation, to see a demonstration of both mind reading and bending keys. He didn’t do any mind reading that succeeded; nobody can read my mind, I guess. And my boy held a key and Geller rubbed it, and nothing happened. Then he told us it works better under water, and so you can picture all of us standing in the bathroom with the water turned on and the key under it, and him rubbing the key with his finger. Nothing happened. So I was unable to investigate that phenomenon.

But then I began to think, what else is there that we believe? (And I thought then about the witch doctors, and how easy it would have been to check on them by noticing that nothing really worked.) So I found things that even more people believe, such as that we have some knowledge of how to educate. There are big schools of reading methods and mathematics methods, and so forth, but if you notice, you’ll see the reading scores keep going down—or hardly going up—in spite of the fact that we continually use these same people to improve the methods. There’s a witch doctor remedy that doesn’t work. It ought to be looked into: how do they know that their method should work? Another example is how to treat criminals. We obviously have made no progress—lots of theory, but no progress—in decreasing the amount of crime by the method that we use to handle criminals.

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.

I tried to find a principle for discovering more of these kinds of things, and came up with the following system. Any time you find yourself in a conversation at a cocktail party—in which you do not feel uncomfortable that the hostess might come around and say, “Why are you fellows talking shop?’’ or that your wife will come around and say, “Why are you flirting again?”—then you can be sure you are talking about something about which nobody knows anything.

Using this method, I discovered a few more topics that I had forgotten—among them the efficacy of various forms of psychotherapy. So I began to investigate through the library, and so on, and I have so much to tell you that I can’t do it at all. I will have to limit myself to just a few little things. I’ll concentrate on the things more people believe in. Maybe I will give a series of speeches next year on all these subjects. It will take a long time.

I think the educational and psychological studies I mentioned are examples of what I would like to call Cargo Cult Science. In the South Seas there is a Cargo Cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they’ve arranged to make things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas—he’s the controller—and they wait for the airplanes to land. 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.

Now it behooves me, of course, to tell you what they’re missing. But it would be just about as difficult to explain to the South Sea Islanders how they have to arrange things so that they get some wealth in their system. It is not something simple like telling them how to improve the shapes of the earphones. But there is one feature I notice that is generally missing in Cargo Cult Science. 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. It is interesting, therefore, to bring it out now and speak of it explicitly. 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. For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.

Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can—if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong—to explain it. If you make a theory, for example, and advertise it, or put it out, then you must also put down all the facts that disagree with it, as well as those that agree with it. There is also a more subtle problem. When you have put a lot of ideas together to make an elaborate theory, you want to make sure, when explaining what it fits, that those things it fits are not just the things that gave you the idea for the theory; but that the finished theory makes something else come out right, in addition.

In summary, the idea is to try to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgment in one particular direction or another.

The easiest way to explain this idea is to contrast it, for example, with advertising. Last night I heard that Wesson Oil doesn’t soak through food. Well, that’s true. It’s not dishonest; but the thing I’m talking about is not just a matter of not being dishonest, it’s a matter of scientific integrity, which is another level. The fact that should be added to that advertising statement is that no oils soak through food, if operated at a certain temperature. If operated at another temperature, they all will—including Wesson Oil. 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 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. And it’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in Cargo Cult Science.

A great deal of their difficulty is, of course, the difficulty of the subject and the inapplicability of the scientific method to the subject. Nevertheless, it should be remarked that this is not the only difficulty. That’s why the planes don’t land—but they don’t land.

We have learned a lot from experience about how to handle some of the ways we fool ourselves. One example: Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.

Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.

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. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

I would like to add something that’s not essential to the science, but something I kind of believe, which is that you should not fool the layman when you’re talking as a scientist. I’m not trying to tell you what to do about cheating on your wife, or fooling your girlfriend, or something like that, when you’re not trying to be a scientist, but just trying to be an ordinary human being. We’ll leave those problems up to you and your rabbi. 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 do when acting as a scientist. And this is our responsibility as scientists, certainly to other scientists, and I think to laymen.

For example, I was a little surprised when I was talking to a friend who was going to go on the radio. He does work on cosmology and astronomy, and he wondered how he would explain what the applications of this work were. “Well,” I said, “there aren’t any.” He said, “Yes, but then we won’t get support for more research of this kind.” 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 result. For example—let’s take advertising again—suppose some particular cigarette has some particular property, like low nicotine. It’s published widely by the company that this means it is good for you—they don’t say, for instance, that the tars are a different proportion, or that something else is the matter with the cigarette. In other words, publication probability depends upon the answer. That should not be done.

I say that’s also important in giving certain types of government advice. Supposing a senator asked you for advice about whether drilling a hole should be done in his state; and you decide it would be better in some other state. If you don’t publish such a result, it seems to me you’re not giving scientific advice. You’re being used. If your answer happens to come out in the direction the government or the politicians like, they can use it as an argument in their favor; if it comes out the other way, they don’t publish it at all. That’s not giving scientific advice.

Other kinds of errors are more characteristic of poor science. When I was at Cornell. I often talked to the people in the psychology department. One of the students told me she wanted to do an experiment that went something like this—I don’t remember it in detail, but it had been found by others that under certain circumstances, X, rats did something, A. She was curious as to whether, if she changed the circumstances to Y, they would still do, A. So her proposal was to do the experiment under circumstances Y and see if they still did A.

I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person—to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A—and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know that the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.

She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1935 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happens.

Nowadays there’s a certain danger of the same thing happening, even in the famous field of physics. I was shocked to hear of an experiment done at the big accelerator at the National Accelerator Laboratory, where a person used deuterium. In order to compare his heavy hydrogen results to what might happen to light hydrogen he had to use data from someone else’s experiment on light hydrogen, which was done on different apparatus. When asked he said it was because he couldn’t get time on the program (because there’s so little time and it’s such expensive apparatus) to do the experiment with light hydrogen on this apparatus because there wouldn’t be any new result. And so the men in charge of programs at NAL are so anxious for new results, in order to get more money to keep the thing going for public relations purposes, they are destroying—possibly—the value of the experiments themselves, which is the whole purpose of the thing. It is often hard for the experimenters there to complete their work as their scientific integrity demands.

All experiments in psychology are not of this type, however. For example, there have been many experiments running rats through all kinds of mazes, and so on—with little clear result. But in 1937 a man named Young did a very interesting one. He had a long corridor with doors all along one side where the rats came in, and doors along the other side where the food was. He wanted to see if he could train the rats to go in at the third door down from wherever he started them off. No. The rats went immediately to the door where the food had been the time before.

The question was, how did the rats know, because the corridor was so beautifully built and so uniform, that this was the same door as before? Obviously there was something about the door that was different from the other doors. So he painted the doors very carefully, arranging the textures on the faces of the doors exactly the same. Still the rats could tell. Then he thought maybe the rats were smelling the food, so he used chemicals to change the smell after each run. Still the rats could tell. Then he realized the rats might be able to tell by seeing the lights and the arrangement in the laboratory like any commonsense person. So he covered the corridor, and, still the rats could tell.

He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.

Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A‑Number‑l experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat‑running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using—not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat‑running.

I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The subsequent experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of Cargo Cult Science.

Another example is the ESP experiments of Mr. Rhine, and other people. As various people have made criticisms—and they themselves have made criticisms of their own experiments—they improve the techniques so that the effects are smaller, and smaller, and smaller until they gradually disappear. All the parapsychologists are looking for some experiment that can be repeated—that you can do again and get the same effect—statistically, even. They run a million rats—no, it’s people this time—they do a lot of things and get a certain statistical effect. Next time they try it they don’t get it any more. And now you find a man saying that it is an irrelevant demand to expect a repeatable experiment. This is science?

This man also speaks about a new institution, in a talk in which he was resigning as Director of the Institute of Parapsychology. And, in telling people what to do next, he says that one of the things they have to do is be sure they only train students who have shown their ability to get PSI results to an acceptable extent—not to waste their time on those ambitious and interested students who get only chance results. It is very dangerous to have such a policy in teaching—to teach students only how to get certain results, rather than how to do an experiment with scientific integrity.

So I wish to you—I have no more time, 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 forced 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. May I also give you one last bit of advice: Never say that you’ll give a talk unless you know clearly what you’re going to talk about and more or less what you’re going to say.

Lifelong Learning

“By three methods we may learn wisdom: First, by reflection, which is noblest; Second, by imitation, which is easiest; and third by experience, which is the bitterest.”

— Confucius

I’m a huge fan of Laurence Endersen’s book: Pebbles of Perception: How a Few Good Choices Make All The Difference. I think it deserves to be on the shelf of every knowledge seeker in the world.

There is a chapter in the book on lifelong learning.

When we are captain of our own ship, life can be a wonderful continuous voyage of discovery. Yet we frequently pigeonhole our learning and discovery into limiting discrete blocks. There are the childhood years, filled with exploration and getting to know the world around us at a sensory level. The early school years follow, during which we are introduced to reading and writing. Middle school years bring a range of core subjects and some people will finish up the formal part of their education with university-level learning.

Then we add some work experience and attain a certain level of competence. From this perch we coast pretty well. It’s like driving. How many of us are getting better at driving? All of those hours behind the wheel are not deliberate practice. If you consider the product of the modern knowledge worker to be decisions, all of this coasting without getting better should concern you.

***

Lifelong Learning

The incentives to follow a path of lifelong learning are not easily apparent.

When assessing our competence in any particular discipline, we can place our level of ability somewhere along a continuum moving from ignorance, to conversational competence, to operational competence, then towards proficiency, and finally all the way to mastery. For most of us, if we get to operational competence in our main career area we are happy enough. We can get by and we don’t have to expend too much energy continuously learning. We become what I call flat-line learners. For the flat-line learner the learning curve might look something like this:

And yet, Endersen argues that if we pursue a path of lifelong learning our path more closely resembles this:

Lifelong Learning
You could even make an argument that lifelong learning puts you on a non-linear path but I’ll leave that for you to think about.

The question as to why everyone doesn’t want to become a lifelong learner remains.

It may boil down to choices and priorities. It is easy to be drawn towards passive entertainment, which requires less from us, over more energetic, active understanding. Inconvenience might be an alibi: “I don’t have time for continuous learning as I am too busy with real life”. But that excuse doesn’t withstand close scrutiny, as experiences (coupled with reflection) can be the richest of all sources of investigation and discovery.

Why not make a conscious decision to learn something new every day? No matter how small the daily learning, it is significant when aggregated over a lifetime. Resolving early in life to have a continuous learning mindset is not only more interesting than the passive alternative, it is also remarkably powerful. Choosing lifelong learning is one of the few good choices that can make a big difference in our lives, giving us an enormous advantage when practised over a long period of time.

***

Reflection

The ignorant man can’t learn from his own mistake and the fool can’t learn from the mistakes of others. These are the primary ways we learn: Through our own experiences and through the experiences of others.

While both avenues have their place, there is no substitute for direct learning through experience – which we enhance through reflection. The process of thoughtful reflection makes our experiences more concrete, and helps with future recall and understanding. Reflecting about what we learned, how we felt, how we and others behaved, and what interests were at play, hardwires the learning in our brain and gives us a depth of context and relevance that would otherwise be absent.

Even if it were desirable, which it’s not, there simply is not enough time to learn everything we need to know through direct experience.

***

Reading

“Reading,” writes Endersen, “is the foundation of indirect learning.” Learning how to read and finding time to read are two of the easiest and best changes you can make if you want to pursue lifelong learning.

Many read for entertainment. Some read for information. Too few read for understanding. Adler’s book (How To Read a Book) is concerned with reading to understand. Being widely read is not the same as being well read. The more effort and skill we put into reading, the greater our understanding.

***

The Feynman Technique

As for testing whether we really understand something after we’ve read it, there is a powerful and elegant technique called the Feynman Technique.

Step 1. Choose the topic or concept that you are trying to understand. Take a blank piece of paper and write the name of the topic at the top.

Step 2. Assume you’re teaching the topic to someone else. Write out a clear explanation of the topic, as if you were trying to teach it. A great way to learn is to teach. You identify gaps in your knowledge very quickly when trying to explain something to someone else in simple terms.

Step 3. If you get bogged down, go back to the source materials. Keep going back until you can explain the concept in its most basic form.

Step 4. Go back and simplify your language. The goal is to use your own words, not the words of the source material. Overly elaborate language is often a sure sign that you don’t fully understand the concept. Use simple language and build on that with a clear analogy. An example that springs to mind is Warren Buffet’s explanation of compound interest (i.e., interest earned on interest), when he likened it to a snowball that gathers snow as it rolls down a hill.

***

Lifelong learning is a better path than flat-line learning.

Savour experiences as opportunities to learn. Reflect on your experiences. Read regularly. Learn how to read for understanding. Know how to test whether you really understand something by demonstrating that you could teach it in simple terms with a clear analogy.

The best way to do that? Follow Einstein’s advice.

Richard Feynman: The Difference Between Knowing the Name of Something and Knowing Something

Richard Feynman

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was no ordinary genius. He believed that “the world is much more interesting than any one discipline.”

His explanations — on why questions, why trains stay on the tracks as they go around a curve, how we look for new laws of science, how rubber bands work, — are simple and powerful.

Even his love letters will move you. His love letter to his wife sixteen months after her death will stir any heart.

In this short clip (below), Feynman articulates the difference between knowing the name of something and understanding it.

See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, 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 the 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.

Knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it. We talk in fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities to cover up our lack of understanding.

How then should we go about learning? On this Feynman echoes Einstein, and proposes that we take things apart:

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 is a first grade science book which, in the first lesson of the first grade, begins in an unfortunate manner to teach science, because it starts off with the wrong idea of what science is. There is a picture of a dog–a windable toy dog–and a hand comes to the winder, and then the dog is able to move. Under the last picture, it says “What makes it move?” Later on, there is a picture of a real dog and the question, “What makes it move?” Then there is a picture of a motorbike and the question, “What makes it move?” and so on.

I thought at first they were getting ready to tell what science was going to be about–physics, biology, chemistry–but that wasn’t it. The answer was in the teacher’s edition of the book: the answer I was trying to learn is that “energy makes it move.”

Now, energy is a very subtle concept. It is very, very difficult to get right. What I mean is that it is not easy to understand energy well enough to use it right, so that you can deduce something correctly using the energy idea–it is beyond the first grade. It would be equally well to say that “God makes it move,” or “spirit makes it move,” or “movability makes it move.” (In fact, one could equally well say “energy makes it stop.”)

Look at it this way: that’s only the definition of energy; it should be reversed. We might say when something can move that it has energy in it, but not what makes it move is energy. This is a very subtle difference. It’s the same with this inertia proposition.

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. The question is fine. The answer is a little unfortunate, because what they were trying to do is teach a definition of what is energy. But nothing whatever is learned.

[…]

I think for lesson number one, to learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad.

There is a way to test whether you understand the idea or only know the definition. It’s called the Feynman Technique, and it looks like this:

Test it this way: you say, “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.” Without using the word “energy,” tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion.” You cannot. So you learned nothing about science. That may be all right. You may not want to learn something about science right away. You have to learn definitions. But for the very first lesson, is that not possibly destructive?

I think this is what Montaigne was hinting at in his Essays when he wrote:

We take other men’s knowledge and opinions upon trust; which is an idle and superficial learning. We must make them our own. We are just like a man who, needing fire, went to a neighbor’s house to fetch it, and finding a very good one there, sat down to warm himself without remembering to carry any back home. What good does it do us to have our belly full of meat if it is not digested, if it is not transformed into us, if it does not nourish and support us?

Richard Feynman’s Letter on What Problems to Solve

"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.”

In a letter dated February 3rd, 1966, included in the wonderful anthology Perfectly Reasonable Deviations From the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard Feynman, Richard Feynman (1918-1988) timelessly describes “worthwhile problems.” We tend to think of these problems as the big ones, though they need not be.

The letter, is part of a chain of communication that started with a former student, Koichi Manom, who had written to extend his congratulations. Richard Feynman asked him what he was doing. Koichi responded: “studying the Coherence theory with some applications to the propagation of electromagnetic waves through turbulent atmosphere … a humble and down-to-earth type of problem.”

Dear Koichi,

I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.

You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. Student (Albert Hibbs) whose thesis was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem instead of letting you find your own; and left you with a wrong idea of what is interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely those problems you see you may do something about). I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to correct it a little.

I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed. For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or, how elastic properties of crystals depend on the forces between the atoms in them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio knobs). Or, how neutrons diffuse out of Uranium. Or, the reflection of electromagnetic waves from films coating glass. The development of shock waves in explosions. The design of a neutron counter. Why some elements capture electrons from the L-orbits, but not the K-orbits. General theory of how to fold paper to make a certain type of child’s toy (called flexagons). The energy levels in the light nuclei. The theory of turbulence (I have spent several years on it without success). Plus all the “grander” problems of quantum theory.

No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.

Best of luck and happiness.

Sincerely,

Richard P. Feynman.

Richard Feynman: The Universe in a Glass of Wine

A poet once said, “The whole universe is in a glass of wine.” We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts—physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on—remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

From the lecture titled “The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences,” in which Richard Feynman highlights the connectedness of everything to everything else. Feynman’s lectures are collected in The Feynman Lectures on Physics.