24 Responses to “Richard Feynman’s Modest Science”

  1. Claes Mogren on August 25th, 2008 8:59 am

    I’m 350 pages into James Gleick’s book “Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics” and I can barely put it down. It’s a fascinating read and it’s really interesting to know more about him as a person and not only about his scientific contributions.

    Thanks for another great post.

  2. TJIC on August 25th, 2008 6:13 pm

    Great post.

    OK, off to Amazon to buy this, and the book Claes recommends above…

  3. David Mathers on August 25th, 2008 7:11 pm

    Feynman talking about confusion:

  4. Gustavo Duarte on August 25th, 2008 7:17 pm

    @Claes: Cool, I’m glad you mentioned this book, I’ll add it to the queue! I read Gleick’s book about Newton and it was a fun read. I am pretty ignorant about Feynman’s life actually, most of the stuff that I read from him was on science, and I didn’t read books about him. Thanks for stopping by.

    @TJIC: Thanks, and enjoy the lectures!

    @David: great clip. That is the Nova program with Feynman isn’t it?

  5. Gustavo Duarte on August 25th, 2008 7:23 pm

    I’ve been trying to keep my blog posts small, so I kept stuff out of the post that I wanted to say real quick, so I figure I’ll post it in a comment. Here’s another quote from The Character Of Physical Law that I really like, p.127:

    “There is no reason why we should expect things to be otherwise, because the things of everyday experience involve large numbers of particles, or involve things moving very slowly, or involve other conditions that are special and represent in fact a limited experience with nature. It is a small section only of natural phenomena that one gets from direct experience. It is only through refined measurements and careful experimentation that we can have a wider vision. And then we see unexpected things: we see things that are far from what we would guess – far from what we could have imagined. Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which _are_ there.


    It will be difficult. But the difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, ‘But how can it be like that?’ which is a reflection of uncontrolled but utterly vain desire to see it in terms of something familiar. I will _not_ describe it in terms of an analogy with something familiar; I will simply describe it.


    On the other hand, I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics. So do not take the lecture too seriously, feeling that you really have to understand in terms of some model what I am going to describe, but just relay and enjoy it. I am going to tell you what nature behaves like. If you will simply admit that maybe she does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possibly avoid it, ‘But how can it be like that?’ because you will get ‘down the drain’, into a blind alley from which nobody has yet escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.”

    There are many other interesting bits as well, for example the discussion on how Maxwell relied on physical analogies and an imagined medium to build his EM theories. In fact, the text of Maxwell’s books is available online, and they’re fascinating to read. Maxwell’s books are second probably only to Newton’s in the history of physics, and that such a brilliant guy had to resort to physical analogies is illuminating and, in a way, comforting :) Reading old science books in general is pretty instructive, maybe I should have stuck with the ether book after all.

    It was reading Feynman that I understood that science is limited to how, not why. Coming from computers it was hard because you can _really_ understand _why_ it all works the way it does (given enough time, of course, and there’s way more than we can know, but it’s possible to know why for a subset if you are so inclined).

    Not so in science. We have to be happy with _how_ it works, and often the how is an equation that cannot be readily rendered into English. Why is it like that? How _can_ it be? Out of scope. Just how, and enjoy it.

    Finally, there are plenty of good teachers and textbooks that approach science in good ways. In compsci this is pretty common, this sort of humility and full context, I think, like Djistra’s “The competent programmer is fully aware of the limited size of his own skull. He therefore approaches his task with full humility, and avoids clever tricks like the plague.” Plenty of other authors follow this line, and enthusiasm is definitely common. Also Einstein’s stuff is really good and ofter raw like Feynman, and others. There are many good authors, I don’t mean to say that Feynman is the only one, though he is unique in certain ways.

  6. Oscar Pereira on August 26th, 2008 3:27 am

    Awesome post. Like your many others. I first found your blog when the Feynman software engineering post got slashdotted, and I’ve been a regular reader since. I have a mixed background of physics and engineering, though if I were to choose now, I’d think I’d choose physics, because I really miss it. For more than once I wanted to buy that set of books from Amazon, but it’s price (together with the amount of time I could dedicate to it) was always a deterrent. Like you, I also hope that changes in the future.
    The point you make here about modesty in science is one that should be explicitly taught in science courses, but unfortunately continues to be something that we hope students get by “osmosis” (Feynman himself remarked this several times). Writings like this one might help to change that.
    Anyway, these are my two cents. Congrats for the blog and keep up the good writing! :-)

  7. Alex Railean on August 26th, 2008 5:21 am

    I happen to be a Feynman fan too, having watched an interview-movie called “The pleasure of finding things out”, I switched to a book called “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” – written by himself (

    He is a great person, if more teachers were like him, pupils\students would be less scared of the stuff they study, and more likely to venture into the unknown.

    The reason I am reading that book is not because I am interested in physics, but because I like his personality. The book starts with several good ideas on how to educate a child, he goes on to talk about different ways of handling life situations, etc. There is also a chapter in which he writes about the investigation of the shuttle accident.

  8. Alan on August 26th, 2008 6:22 am

    Watch the first of these lectures by Feynman, from about 15 minutes in, to about 35 minutes in.

    Feynman gives a terrific exposition on “understanding”, and how nobody, not grad students, not professors, nobody, really “understands” quantum mechanics.

  9. milkyway on August 26th, 2008 9:20 am

    Another great author is Kary B. Mullis. He has several things in common with Feynman: he is a scientist, he won the Nobel prize, he wrote a fun and informative book very much like Feynman’s “Surely you’re joking Mr. Feynman” titled “Dancing naked in the mind field” and … well I could go on a little bit, indeed, but it’s up to you to discover the rest!

    By the way … Great blog, Gustavo!!!

  10. Gustavo Duarte on August 28th, 2008 1:18 am

    @Oscar: I’m not sure if a career in physics is a good option though. There are a lot of issues you know… endless postdocs, hard-to-get tenure, grueling advisors, abuse, etc. As much as I think the science is beautiful, I’m not sure if I’d be happy doing it professionally. My personal plan is to live modestly so that I soon will have more time to dedicate to learning, and not have to wait until retirement :) Thanks for reading, I’m glad /. brought you guys over.

    @Alex: good suggestion. I’ve added the book to the queue as well. By the way, cool blog you have, I want to read your article on corruption more closely, being from Brazil I’ve spent some time thinking about that as well.

    @Alan: great video, I love his accent hahah.

    @milkyway: sweet, more books. This post was well worth it already. And thanks for the feedback!

  11. Raminder on August 28th, 2008 10:48 pm

    As always a very good post. I can understand your state of mind when you say you didn’t understand physics or were afraid that you were unable to imagine things as teachers were trying to convey. I’ve gone through the same. And I’ve also read some Feynman lectures. I remember reading the text in the Feynman book that you’ve put in the comment(especially the last section). His words really encourage students, because they know they are not alone in it, its not difficult for them alone, everybody feels the same difficulty. I remember how I fell in love with mathematics. The day I realized that matrices were simply an array of numbers arranged in a rectangular pattern and stopped asking myself the question ‘But how can it be like that?’ I started liking matrices. Suddenly matrices were easy. This experience later lead me to like calculus and maths in general.

  12. Erez Sh on August 29th, 2008 5:48 am

    It’s great to hear another person disturbed by the simple-mindedness of popular culture. Feynman also wrote brilliantly about how uncertainty is a part of life and should be embraced (not knowing for sure how the world works — it’s OK). This is something your teachers, as most people, didn’t learn.

  13. İsmail Arı on August 30th, 2008 2:24 pm

    I red his book, “Surely, you’re joking Mr. Feynman”, at the beginnig of this year and enjoyed it very much that I did not want it to finish. It was like an honest friend describing the truth and with its encouragement, I did not do physics but I could finish the most important parts in my thesis in computer science. I recommend that book to know more about Feynman.

    The Nova documentary “The pleasure of finding things out” as Alex describes was also great. The book I described was also based on it.

    Besides science, I know that Feynman was very good at drawing and bongo playing.

    Thanks for the post, I enjoyed it very much…

  14. Keith Brown on August 31st, 2008 1:22 pm

    I feel your pain. I read Hawking’s “A Brief History of Time” a long time ago, which is supposed to be written for the layman. I was doing pretty well until about halfway through. At that point, I was lost. I finished it, but the words didn’t really mean anything anymore. As a young adult, I also read “Surely, you’re joking Mr. Feynman”, and loved it. He was quite a character.

  15. Gustavo Duarte on August 31st, 2008 11:53 pm

    @İsmail: You’re welcome, I feel much the same way as you do toward the books.

    @Keith: yea, I tried reading the Universe in a Nutshell by Hawking but hated it. I thought it was the sort of stuff you get in science magazines, where they gloss over stuff and do some hand-waving to “simplify” it, with the result that it becomes impossible to understand.

    When I have some time, I hope to hit up some traditional quantum textbooks + ol’ Feynman and learn some of this stuff for real, at least get to the point where they were in the 20s and 30s.

  16. Rodolfo on September 16th, 2008 7:17 am

    How do I list all your past blog posts by the title? Clicking each month on this right side menu, and scrolling all the way down through this month’s posts to search an interessant title is not cool… I’d like to find a list like the “Recently Written” one that showed ALL the posts – not only the recent ones.

    Sorry for using the comments to ask this. I couldn’t figure out other way to do it.

    I really enjoyed your posts, by the way! Congratulations!

  17. Gustavo Duarte on September 16th, 2008 8:23 am

    @Rodolfo: thanks a lot for the feedback, and no worries about using the comments for this.

    Sadly, there’s currently no way to do what you want in my WordPress template. I agree this sucks badly, it’s a must have feature. I hope to replace this template within a month or so and fix several problems, among which this one is top priority.

    Sorry about that.

  18. Green Energy on September 17th, 2008 8:06 am

    Hi-Great post. I love reading Feynman, even though i dont really understand a word of it!

  19. Darcy on September 26th, 2008 12:59 pm

    I tried reading Genius by James Gleick after finding an old copy laying in my attic… after reading “Surely You’re Joking” and “What Do You Care About What Other People Think?” I found his writing style to be too slow for me :( I’ll keep trying though.
    I can relate a lot to the author; I am in the same situation… I’ve read Brian Greene, Michio Kaku, and Feynman since my freshman year and I find that I just need to put down the science books and learn math because I can’t do anything with the concepts any more (I’m a junior in high school now) like I could with gravity and E=mc^2.

  20. W0lfness on October 6th, 2008 6:36 pm

    I love Feynman.

    Yeah I know he’s dead, but he talked to his students and to PEOPLE like he was human too, he realized towards the end of his life too, that everything in life is connected, it’s not all just science or art, it’s everything.

    I read all of the collected stories about him, the lectures I want to own before I get into them, I’m an Engineering Physics, Computer Science, and Math major (who also plans on getting a degree in Art). Not yet in school but I know I will be in the future, physics fascinates me and has always fascinated me since I was little; but the only scientist that has ever earned my respect has been him, not Einstein, not Bohr, not even Marie Curie [I’m female] because the way he lived life was the way he saw Physics.

    And let me add I don’t consider him a god or something, I simply consider him a human, just like everyone else, who gave it his all for something that he loved doing. I’m no Feynman, I am not a genius, but I am intelligent, and I will do what I can to pass on what he started [and what he also continued], hopefully helping the world out in the process.

  21. F2 on October 8th, 2008 9:58 am

    It is great to see that someone has some enthusisasm left in their bones. Yay!

    I am a big Ofey fan myself, although I prefer volume 1.

  22. Alan on October 22nd, 2008 3:08 pm

    Thanks for the reference to Feynmann. I viewed his video lectures on the internet. Like you, I appreciate his no-nonsense approach to teaching physics. Like you, I try to understand it and fail. So I shall stick
    to the macroscopic world. But being an electrical engineer, I will continue to dabble in the realm of semiconductor physics and chemistry. If you want a no-nonsense approach to epistemology (the study of what we know and how we know it), I recommend “Introduction to Objectivist Epistemology” by Ayn Rand. It is a good nonfiction introduction to epistemology. No math at all. Epistemology is the bedrock foundation of all the phyical sciences.

  23. Anoop Verma on December 25th, 2008 7:17 am

    Great postings. I’ve decided to re-read the Feynman’s Lectures, which are still with me almost after two decades of my final connections with formal Physics. I used that book in parts to prepare some notes during my graduation and post-graduation in Physics. Later I switched to computer programming, specially Data Structures & C++.

    Once browsing through the Nobel’s site, I saw Feynman’s name and recalled the book, brought it out and started reading it in my free time. But now I’m sure to finish it again, this time reading each page of it, as if it’s a novel. I’m sure it is better than most of the novels that I use to read all the time.

    Thanks Gustavo & all others too, for motivating me….

  24. tom on May 16th, 2009 2:45 pm

    Yeah me too. (I keep wanting to go back and understand math and physics).
    The problem is that real science is just the development of ideas that describe and predict measurements.
    If those ideas are mathematical equations then you really have to learn the math. If those ideas are built of computer code, then yay for us programmers.
    But I think a lot of good physicists, when they develop a physical feel for the ideas they’re working with, already understand the math and are working backwards into English just to increase their comfort level and/or communicate with other scientists. The rest of the public is then fooled into thinking that you can use the English to “ease” your way into the math.
    Any real physicists out there want to back me up on this?