In which Richard Feynman annoys me less than previously

My dislike of Feynman’s memoirs prompted the longest and best series of comments this blog has ever seen — many of which were spirited endorsements of Feynman’s books. Here’s Austin:

But it was (for me) a founding text for a kind of nerd intellectual ethos that got expounded in the stories – don’t be afraid to ask apparently stupid questions; reason up from first principles; don’t be afraid to look ridiculous; question accepted solutions; look for basic truths in every day phenomena; explore the world with your intellect; thinking = play.

and Pete:

I really do profoundly agree with his main point, that just because someone tells you that something is true or right doesn’t make it so: you should cultivate an ability to work things out for yourself.

Feynman really does try to teach these lessons, as I recall, and they’re good ones. For me they were drowned out by some kind of personality clash between Feynman’s character and mine. Austin and Pete were luckier.

(And there’s more good stuff in the comments too. Anyone who has more to say on the topic of “Who was a bigger jerk, Feynman or Weil?” is encouraged to continue beneath the present post.)

Tagged , ,

7 thoughts on “In which Richard Feynman annoys me less than previously

  1. Anonymous says:

    I actually think Feynman’s attempts to teach these lessons were part of why I hated the books (along with his being a sexist pig). Of course the lessons are great, but they’ve been commonplace among excellent scientists since the very beginning of science. Feynman does his best to present them as if they were his own personal innovations, without the slightest precedent. In Feynman’s worldview, everyone he has ever met is stuffy and obtuse and will eventually be shown up by his childlike wisdom. He does teach good lessons, but he does so by talking incessantly about how much better he is than anyone else and how we should all strive to be like him. The sad thing is that he is indeed a good teacher. I wish I knew other equally inspirational books to recommend instead – any suggestions?

  2. Anonymous2 says:

    “The sad thing is that he is indeed a good teacher.”

    Is it really possible for excellence in teaching to ever be a sad thing?

  3. Norbert Wiener says:

    There really is a big difference between being an inspirational figure to young people, and being the type of person adults are fond of. A lot of the positive responses are from people who were kids when they first read his books. I think a 15 year old is not going to be put off by sexism and braggadocio as often. This is after all what 15 year olds are often like. I remember reading his book for the first time when I was about that age. While I don’t remember being inspired, I did find it engaging and interesting. I looked at it again later on, maybe when I was about 24 or so, and that’s when I thought this guy was a dork. So I suppose one can argue that inspiring youth is more important than being a pleasant guy. I do imagine he drove a lot of his colleagues crazy with these books and his antics.

  4. I wish I knew other equally inspirational books to recommend instead – any suggestions?

    They’re both in a different in style/purpose that Feynman, but two great books by scientists about doing science are Freeman Dyson’s Disturbing the universe, and E. O. Wilson’s The Naturalist. For one thing, both are far better writers than Feynman. When Dyson’s talks about the discovery of QED in his book, Feynman naturally plays a big role…

  5. Richard Kent says:

    I wish I knew other equally inspirational books to recommend instead – any suggestions?

    Though only a story, and fiction, and not really inspirational, but hilarious, I highly recommend Donald Barthelme’s “The genius.”

  6. Pete L. Clark says:

    To respond to “Anonymous #1″:

    “I actually think Feynman’s attempts to teach these lessons were part of why I hated the books (along with his being a sexist pig). Of course the lessons are great, but they’ve been commonplace among excellent scientists since the very beginning of science.”

    Agreed. Depending upon when you think “the very beginning of science” was, it may go back even further than this: certainly this sentiment was expressed at length by Socrates, who is a much nobler and more tragic figure than Feynman: Socrates died
    for his unwillingness to renounce these beliefs, while Feynman had a good life enjoying
    the freedoms of modern academia, in which you can publicly testify in favor of your local strip club without suffering any direct consequences.

    But just because an idea is unoriginal does not mean it is unimportant. Feynman argues, successfully in my mind, that “Learn to think for yourself” is, for all its familiarity and seemingly self-evident merit, not a credo that is much practiced in many aspects of modern life, even (gasp!) in many parts of academia. In fact it is rarely the royal road to conventional success, and James Gleick in his biography avers that Feynman’s specific technical successes in physics came in spite of his stubborn independence, not because of it. Many firmly tenured mathematicians nowadays try not to be openly critical of anyone attached with a potential source of
    funding, so in particular any part of the US government, no matter how chuckle-headed their policies may be (a certain recent DARPA proposal comes to mind — imagine if people said what they really thought of that, in public and with their
    names attached!).

    Any moderately well-educated person will recognize Feynman as just one
    in a sequence of proponents of the Socratic (-Cartesian-Galilean-…) credo. To explicitly point out the many others that thought the same way seems laughably antithetic to the point: should he have said, “Learn to think for yourself, as many
    brilliant and famous people throughout history have also advised”??

  7. Anonymous says:

    To explicitly point out the many others that thought the same way seems laughably antithetic to the point: should he have said, “Learn to think for yourself, as many brilliant and famous people throughout history have also advised”??

    Sure, that would have been laughable, but it would have been equally laughable for him to say “Learn to think for yourself because I say so.” Instead, he said “Wow, look at how much success I’ve had by thinking for myself. Wouldn’t you like to be more like me?” That approach works well regardless of whether you are drawing on your own experiences or other people’s (which is why a high school graduation speech about Feynman can be effective).

    I think it comes down to a matter of personality. Feynman defined himself as a rebel and was always eager to establish how different he was from everyone else, while I love feeling like part of an ancient fellowship of like-minded scholars. Leaving out the latter made his books feel much less inspirational to me, personally.

    a certain recent DARPA proposal comes to mind — imagine if people said what they really thought of that, in public and with their names attached

    I have to agree with you there. It was a totally outrageous proposal, but I definitely got the feeling many mathematicians considered it unwise to criticize DARPA too harshly. From a political perspective, they may well be right, but that doesn’t make it feel any better.

    This is a different issue, though. Feynman seemed to believe both that you should always think for yourself and that you should always say what you think. I endorse the first belief 100%, but the second is more problematic. I’m convinced we should always have the freedom to say what we think, but I’m not convinced it’s always a good idea to say it. In particular, it’s important in life to figure out what your goals really are and then choose your battles wisely. Sometimes this means giving up on one issue in order to focus on another.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 549 other followers

%d bloggers like this: