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Feynman’s Invaluable Advices For Students

The most miraculous personalities of scientific history, Richard Feynman, 1965 Nobel prize winner for his works on QED (along with J. Schwinger and Tomonaga), Dr. Feynman was a remarkably amazing educator and a great physicist. He also created a mathematical theory that accounts for the phenomenon of superfluidity in liquid helium. Thereafter, he had fundamental contributions (along with Murray Gell-Mann) to weak interactions such as beta decay. In his later years, Feynman played a significant role in the development of quark theory by putting forward his parton model of high energy proton collision processes.

He also introduced basic new computational techniques and notations into physics. Richard Feynman is also best known for his works on the 1986 Challenger Shuttle disaster, where he famously demonstrated the susceptibility of the O-rings to cold, an elegant experiment which required nothing more than a glass of ice water and a C-clamp. Richard Feynman, on his final reports of the Challenger commission, 1986:

“For a successful technology reality must take precedence over public relations for nature cannot be fooled.”

Besides being a physicist, he was at various times repairer of radios, a picker of locks, an artist, a dancer, a bongo player, a great teacher, a showman, and even a decipherer of Mayan Hieroglyphics.

Perpetually curious about his world, he was an exemplary empiricist. Feynman’s life was a series of combustible combinations made possible by his unique mixture of high intelligence, unquenchable curiosity and eternal skepticism. The ubiquitous Feynman diagrams that, perhaps more than any other formalism in recent scientific history, have changed the way in which basic physical processes are conceptualized and calculated. Richard Feynman received his Ph.D. from Princeton in 1942. Despite his youth, he played an important role in the calculation division for the Manhattan project at Los Alamos during World War II. Subsequently, he taught at Cornell and at the Caltech.

A truer description would have said that Feynman was all genius and all buffoon. The deep thinking and the joyful clowning were not separate parts of a split personality… He was thinking and clowning simultaneously.

- Freeman Dyson, 1988 remark on Feynman.

Along with being an impeccable teacher, Feynman was a great student. He truly believed that one should work and study hard what fascinates one the most. He used to enjoy learning things and there were many things during his early years that he taught himself.

Feynman was extremely motivated to study mathematics even as a child. He was also exceptionally good at it too. According one of the best biographies on Feynman, he taught himself differential and integral calculus at the age of 13 at a time (early 1930’s) when very few high school students graduated with any knowledge of calculus. To learn calculus, he went to an adults-only library and lied to the librarian to borrow a calculus textbook which he then proceeded to master on his own.

Study hard what interests you the most

Discipline is essential to mastering your craft. It takes years to learn it. There isn’t any substitute for hard work. Feynman used to spend hours studying and teaching himself stuffs.

There are no miracle people. I was an ordinary person who studied hard. You ask me if an ordinary person could ever get to be able to imagine these things like I imagine them. Of course! I was an ordinary person who studied hard. There are no miracle people. It happens they get interested in this thing and they learn all this stuff, but they’re just people. There’s no talent, no special ability to understand quantum mechanics, or to imagine electromagnetic fields, that comes without practice and reading and learning and study. I was not born understanding quantum mechanics — I still don’t understand quantum mechanics! I was born not knowing things were made out of atoms, and not being able to visualize, therefore, when I saw the bottle of milk that I was sucking, that it was a dynamic bunch of balls bouncing around. I had to learn that just like anybody else. So if you take an ordinary person who is willing to devote a great deal of time and work and thinking and mathematics, then he’s become a scientist!

Don’t care about what others think of you. Think for yourself

Don’t become distracted by opinion and hearsay. Focus on your job.

Why do you care what other people think?

In the long run, the only thing that’s going to matter is you and what you do for yourself. People who get distracted by others barely succeed. This is the key. If you want to succeed, you have to learn how to focus upon yourself. If there’s anything that’s stopping you, it’s not the lack of intelligence, it’s the lack of focus.

Embrace the uncertainty. Don’t be afraid to ask questions

Feynman believed that doubt and skepticism are crucial for a scientific discovery. His views on uncertainty and skepticism can also be applied to academics. Curiosity is what drives knowledge and one should never be afraid to ask questions. Especially in academics, students are reluctant to asking questions. They would rather sit back and stay confused rather than ask question to their teachers. This is what Feynman speaks about uncertainty:

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers that might be wrong. If we will only allow that, as we progress, we remain unsure, we will leave opportunities for alternatives. We will not become enthusiastic for the fact, the knowledge, the absolute truth of the day, but remain always uncertain … In order to make progress, one must leave the door to the unknown ajar.

Feynman’s views about curiosity:

But it is curiosity as to where we are, what we are. It is very much more exciting to discover that we are on a ball, half of us sticking upside down and spinning around in space. It is a mysterious force which holds us on. It’s going around a great big glob of gas that is fed by a fire that is completely different from any fire that we can make (but now we can make that fire — nuclear fire.)

Learn by understanding, not by memorizing

Understanding is much more important than memorization. Of course, memorization is also an integral component when it comes to learning things in academics. But students tend to rely more upon memorization when it comes to learning rather than trying to understand things conceptually. When you understand a concept, you will remember it for years whereas when you memorize the same, you will remember it for merely for days and gradually forget it. Conceptual understanding helps you understand the information on a deeper level unlike memorizing which merely touches the surface. Feynman believed that names do not constitute knowledge and that when you have memorized the name of something doesn’t mean you know stuffs about it. Knowing the name of something doesn’t mean you understand it. We talk in fact-deficient, obfuscating generalities to cover up our lack of understanding. He once said in an interview,

See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling, and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird. You only know something about people: what they call the bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way.

What you cannot create, you do not understand

Feynman’s blackboard, 1988. Caltech Archives image

This quote is taken from his blackboard at the time of his death. Right underneath, it says,

Know how to solve every problem that has been solved.

Feynman realized on a deep level that knowledge is revealed when a person can recreate real world phenomena by applying their knowledge, or working within the model they have in their mind. It’s a remarkable feat to realize just how little one understands a concept, and how insufficient knowledge without creation is. You’ll imbibe this to an extent if you work through Feynman’s lecture courses. Feynman meant here that understanding something is not just about working through advanced mathematics. One must also have a notion that is intuitive enough to explain to an audience that cannot follow the detailed derivation.

Imagination is important

Leaders need to make it safe for people to think big. Encourage people to pursue ideas as a means of adding to the greater whole. Imagination is the ability to imagine something new that has not happened yet. In simple words, imagination is like creating a future in minds.

Feynman believed in the power of imagination. The fact that imagination is an important tool to discovery was evident through many of his works. Feynman diagrams, for example, simple yet elegant diagrammatic representations in Quantum electrodynamics were mere products of Feynman’s imagination which turned out to be a great asset for understanding the behavior and interaction of sub-atomic particles and photons.

Imagination is one of our greatest assets. People can nurture it within themselves and within others to tackle some of societies biggest challenges. Many social enterprises, for example, are taking this approach. They are enabling people to do positive things to improve life on the planet.

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere globs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part. … What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the “why?” It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?


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