Vimeo / Quoted Studios
Vimeo / Quoted Studios

Video Premiere: Richard Feynman on Understanding

Vimeo / Quoted Studios
Vimeo / Quoted Studios

Now here's a treat—the premiere of a new short film about Richard Feynman!

Feynman is a personal hero; I've written about him for many years. In the video below, an interview with Charles Weiner from 1966 is set to animation. Feynman explains his perspective on science and mathematics as a child, and how his father helped him to understand, to translate, the sometimes stuffy language of science and the encyclopedia into plain language. This led to Feynman's later ability to speak plainly about topics like failed O-rings in the Challenger disaster.

Be aware that the audio is a little unclear in parts; the transcript below should be an easy way to follow along if it's hard to hear.

Richard Feynman on What It Means from Quoted Studios on Vimeo.


Richard Feynman: My father, you see, interested me in patterns at the very beginning, and then later in things, like we would turn over stones and watch the ants carry the little white babies down deeper into the holes. We would look at worms. We’d go for walks and we’d look at things all the time: the stars, the way birds fly. He was always telling me interesting things.

Richard Feynman: I mean this story’s a rumor, as far as I’m concerned, but the story is that before I was born he told my mother that, “If it’s a boy, he’ll be a scientist.”

Richard Feynman: My father used to sit me on his lap, and the one book we did use all the time was the Encyclopedia Britannica. He used to sit me on his lap when I was a kid and read out of the damned thing. There would be pictures of dinosaurs, and then he would read. You know the long words –- “the dinosaur” so and so “attains a length of so and so many feet.” He would always stop and he would say, “You know what that means? It means, if the dinosaur’s standing on our front yard, and your bedroom window, you know, is on the second floor, you’d see out the window his head standing looking at you." He would translate everything, and I learned to translate everything, so it’s the same disease. When I read something, I always translate it the best I can into what does it really mean.

Richard Feynman: See I can remember my father talking, talking, and talking. When you go into the museum, for example, there are great rocks which have long cuts, grooves in them, from glacier. I remember, the first time going there, when he stopped there and explained to me about the ice moving and grinding. I can hear the voice, practically. Then he would tell me, “How do you think anybody knows that there were glaciers in the past?” He’d point out, “Look at that. These rocks are found in New York. And so there must have been ice in New York.” He understood. A thing that was very important about my father was not the facts but the process. How we find out. What is the consequence of finding such a rock. But that’s the kind of guy he was. I don’t think he ever successfully went to college. However, he did teach himself a great deal. He read a lot. He liked the rational mind, and liked those things which could be understood by thinking. So it’s not hard to understand I got interested in science.

Richard Feynman: I got a laboratory in my room. We also played a trick on my mother there. We put sodium ferrocyanide in the towels, and another substance, an iron salt, probably alum, in the soap. When they come together, they make blue ink. So we were supposed to fool my mother, you see. She would wash her hands, and then when she dried them, the towels … her hands would turn blue. But we didn’t think the towel would turn blue. Anyway, she was horrified. The screams of “My good linen towels!” But she was always cooperative. She never was afraid of the experiments. The bridge partners would tell her, “How can you let the child have a laboratory? And blow up the house!” — and all this kind of talk. She just said, “It’s worth it.” I mean, “It’s worth the risk.”

Richard Feynman: I took later solid geometry and trigonometry. In solid geometry was the first time I ever had any mathematical difficulties. It was my only experience with how it must feel to the ordinary human being. Then I discovered what was wrong. The diagrams that were being drawn on the blackboard were three-dimensional, and I was thinking of them as plane diagrams, and I couldn’t understand what the hell was going on. It was a mistake in the orientation. When he would draw pictures, and I would see a parallelogram, and he called it a square, because it was tilted out of the plane, you know. And I—“Oh God, this thing doesn’t make any sense! What is he talking about?” It was a terrifying experience. Butterflies in my stomach kind of feeling. But it was just a dumb mistake. But I suspect that this kind of a dumb mistake is very common, to people learning mathematics. Part of the missing understanding is to mistake what it is you’re supposed to know.

Richard Feynman: It isn’t the question of learning anything precisely, but of learning that there’s something exciting over there. I think that the same thing happened with my father. My father never really knew anything in detail, but would tell me what’s interesting about the world, and where, if you look, you’ll find still more interests, so that later I’d say, “Well, this is going to be good, I know — this has got something to do with this, which is hot stuff.” This kind of feeling of what was important and that is the key. The key was somehow to know what was important and what was not important, what was exciting, because I can’t learn everything.

(Animation Ends)

Richard Feynman: The thing that I loved was, everything that I read was serious — wasn’t written for a child. I didn’t like children’s things. Because, for one thing I was very very — and still am — sensitive and very worried about was that the thing to be dead honest; that it isn’t fixed up so it looks easy. Details purposely left out, or slightly erroneous explanations, in order to get away with it. This was intolerable.

Richard Feynman: I kind of try to imagine what would have happened to me if I’d lived in today’s era. I’m rather horrified. I think there are too many books, that the mind gets boggled. If I got interested, I would have so many things to look at, I would go crazy. It’s too easy.

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Watch: Stanley Kubrick's Boxes
Getty Images
Getty Images

In 1996, author/documentarian Jon Ronson received a phone call from someone representing Stanley Kubrick, requesting a copy of Ronson's Holocaust documentary. Ronson figured that was a bit weird, but it was Kubrick, so he'd go along with it.

After Kubrick's death in 1999, Ronson gained access to Kubrick's legendary boxes, the more than 1,000 vessels of ephemera hoarded by the master. So, uh, what's in the boxes? Lots of photographs, memos, letters, you name it.

Ronson made a 45-minute documentary about the boxes, including a tour of Kubrick's estate and the various box storage locations. He even interviews the writer of one of the "crank letters" sent to (and kept by) Kubrick. Kubrick had simply written "crank" on it and filed it away.

This is a terrific watch for anyone interested in filmmaking, Kubrick, or—let's face it—storing stuff in boxes. There's even a segment about half an hour in about how Kubrick worked out the optimal size for a box and its lid, then had them custom-made. Enjoy:

If you're not into the whole video thing, check out Ronson's feature for The Guardian on the same subject.

[h/t: Kottke.]

YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
Tuesday on American Experience: Tesla
YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS
YouTube // AmericanExperiencePBS

Airing Tuesday night (October, 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S., American Experience presents Tesla, a documentary following Nikola Tesla's life and work. Check your local listings for times, though in most markets the show airs at 9pm. (It will also be on PBS's streaming channels starting October 19.) Here's a 30-second preview:

In American Experience's new hour-long documentary Tesla, we see a portrait of Nikola Tesla, the visionary inventor who is now known as "the patron saint of geeks."

As a lifelong geek, I went into this documentary with a sudden realization: I don't actually know much about Tesla as a person. Sure, I've seen Tesla Coils and I've read about all the wireless energy stuff, but who was this guy? Where did he come from? An hour with this PBS special answers those questions and many more. Here's the first seven minutes of the documentary, just to get you started:

The first thing that jumped out at me while watching this film is that I've been pronouncing Nikola Tesla's first name incorrectly. Watch the clip above—it's properly pronounced "nih-COLE-uh," though some of the experts in the film use the more typical American pronunciation stressing the first syllable.

Aside from learning the man's name, I was surprised to learn that his first invention was a hook designed to catch frogs (and an invention soon after was a "motor" powered by June bugs). But his first breakthrough invention was of course the AC (Alternating Current) motor, and much of the AC-related infrastructure to go with it.

The documentary paints Tesla as a man of great talent and vision, but with fundamentally flawed business sense. Time after time, he makes bad business deals or wastes money, then finds his technical progress stymied by lack of funding. Perhaps as a consequence of this frustration, he goes off the rails mentally from time to time, as in his later years claiming to have received communications from Mars, or falling in love with a pigeon. It also seems clear that he suffered from psychiatric disorders that today could probably be treated, but in the 1800s and early 1900s forced him to engage in repetitive behavior and avoid much human contact.

In any case, Tesla is a fantastic exploration of the human story behind the legend. My only complaint is that I wish it were longer. (Okay, one more complaint: I would've loved to learn why he often posed for pictures with his right hand to his face.)


Tesla premieres Tuesday night (October 18, 2016) on PBS stations around the U.S. It will then begin streaming on October 19 on the PBS streaming apps.


You should really watch Edison online (for free, legally!) for a counterpoint. Edison and Tesla were contemporaries, and Tesla actually worked for Edison early on, both in Paris and the U.S. These two films together give us a view of the importance of an inventor's vision paired with his ability to run a business. The two men are fundamentally different both in their approach to invention and business, and it's worthwhile to compare and contrast. (Incidentally, Open Culture has a roundup of the 23 American Experience documentaries you can currently stream online—that's one way to fill up your lunch breaks for the next month!)


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