Video Premiere: Richard Feynman on Understanding
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: 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.
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.