How The Fuck Did Feynman Get Here !?
How The Fuck Did Feynman Get Here !? I’ve been re-rereading stories about Feynman again. People decry that no such geniuses exist today, they oft seem to decry the fact that no physicists since has developed such a thirst for understanding and beautiful ability to abstract for others.
But the question, I think, lies better on its head:
How the fuck did someone like Richard Feynman ever become a physicist?
It often seems that Feynman’s most impressive skills are perpendicular to anything relevant to physics, mathematics, or even science beyond a very abstract philosophical level.
For example, his approaches to solving complex problems often sound like the kind of thing you’d do before figuring out how to optimally reason using the efficient abstractions provided by mathematics:
”I can’t understand anything in general unless I’m carrying along in my mind a specific example and watching it go. Some people think in the beginning that I’m kind of slow and I don’t understand the problem, because I ask a lot of these “dumb” questions: “Is a cathode plus or minus? Is an an-ion this way, or that way?” But later, when the guy’s in the middle of a bunch of equations, he’ll say something and I’ll say, “Wait a minute! There’s an error! That can’t be right!” The guy looks at his equations, and sure enough, after a while, he finds the mistake and wonders, “How the hell did this guy, who hardly understood at the beginning, find that mistake in the mess of all these equations?” He thinks I’m following the steps mathematically, but that’s not what I’m doing. I have the specific, physical example of what he’s trying to analyze, and I know from instinct and experience the properties of the thing. So when the equation says it should behave so-and-so, and I know that’s the wrong way around, I jump up and say, “Wait! There’s a mistake!”
This approach to problems is impressive, but it’s impressive in the same way that a man doing complex calculations without a computer is. It seems tedious beyond reason for someone able to abstract better.
Mind you, if Feynman was a businessman or even an engineer this would be a rather useful way of thinking and it is the way that the vast majority of “applied” people I know seem to approach dialogues with their more theoretically minded colleagues.
There’s also this interesting story, though I’m afraid I can’t be arsed to cite it, where Feynman found a faultily placed valve in this-or-that high-value military plant, by simply not paying attention whilst the structure was being explained to him, then trying to catch up by asking some questions on a schematic. Lo-and-behold in a few seconds of open question-asking the engineers working on it realized they had made a huge mistake.
It also seems that a lot of his time at the famous Manhattan project was concerned with distinctly not physics, and a lot of that wasn’t even computer science but rather…. Learning to lockpick the lockers and desks of higher-ups, trying to bypass the army with clever on-the-fly ciphers exchanging letters with his wife, running in-prompt psychology experiments on world-renowned physicists.
The story of him working at a supercomputer company is also telling: He came in, everyone was kind of confused about what to ask for, somebody mumbled that they didn’t have pens and…. Feynman, by then a world-renowned noble laureate physicist, went and bought pens.
And all of the anecdotes he tells about trying to pick the mind of his colleagues at a meta-level. Thinking about how they think, how do you count, how do you sum, how do you remember, how do you multiply, divide, and factor? You’d often times think that Feynman was much more interested in psychology than physics.
No, no doubt Feynman was a very intelligent man and very good at physics.
Yet given all of his diverging interests, his preference to focus on people and psychology, his (comparative to Nobel-grade physicists) dispreference for difficult mathematics, and his general ADHD, it seems unlikely that he was the best physicist. Indeed, he himself confesses that placement at the Manhattan project (and even the noble prize) came as a rather big surprise and if anything they seem in part owned to his charm and amiability rather than a breakthrough no other man could do.
I could see Feynman being many things in today’s world:
A quack sending frantically worded letters to professors or mathematics and physics
A psychedelics-driven new age guru
Amateur psychologists at the forefront of the replication crises
A tech startup founder
A genius programmer
Yet I find it very hard to imagine him as a physicist, or in any way connected to modern academia. He’s the kind of person that probably required a lot of slack to participate in that system. He owes his success in part to “raw” intelligence, that is certain, but he was atypical enough that, be him the smartest person in the world, he’d never have been able to navigate a hierarchy without plenty of slack.
Indeed, even back in the early 20th century, it seems rather amazing that someone with such a wide array of interests and from such a “low class” background made it to the position he was in.
So my biggest takeaway from reading Feynman’s biography is that the question I should be asking isn’t:
Why was Feynman so freaking good?
That part flows from having a different way of thinking and wider areas of interest than all of your peers. At that point “being good” happens naturally if you stick in the field long enough.
Thousands of potential Feynmans are born and thousands die every day, the typology that can generate a Feynman, while to be appreciated, is not particularly rare nor alien.
The question that should be asked is:
How the fuck did Feynman get there in the first place!?
It’s precisely the slack in the academic system, and Feynman’s way of exploiting it to become a professor and then a Manhattan project participant, that’s the anomaly we should be looking at.
I think you may have been seduced a bit by Feynman’s glib and fun retellings of different events; much of the Manhattan Project was (is?) a matter of national security when he wrote his books. So you don’t get the illegal nuclear secrets version of what he was doing. You also don’t get much on the absolutely brutal back and forth at the Manhattan Project while his first wife was dying, and he was commuting back and forth to her in the hospital, trying to figure out if he should stay on or not. But, both of those things were important.
I propose if you listen to his lectures you will understand immediately how and why he was so popular in academia; I think someone of Feynman’s qualities would be similarly popular today - a charismatic omnibus genius with excellent lecturing skills and the resulting multidisciplinary touchpoints would be snapped up a lot of places.
To me, Feynman’s intelligence had a very rare quality - the ability to go from massive abstraction right down to technical detail: you mention a few of these anecdotes in your blog post. If anyone takes anything from reading about him, I’d hope it would be encouragement to develop on that axis - it’s super valuable to the world, and we don’t have enough of it!
I think your picture of Feynman is completely mistaken. He loved physics. He thought about physics and calculus all the time. And he was absolutely fantastic at it.
He was just sufficiently smart and curious to have some mental energy left over to do other things as well, like the occasional psychology and social science self-experiment, and when writing amusing anecdotes for the general public, he focused on those things.
Feynman's skills and exploits in other matters seem as nothing compared to his contributions to particle physics to me.