Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
If you like listen to long stories of your friends, give it a try.
I expected something different.
First of all, it shouldn’t be a book. The writing is terrible. It could not be fixed by editing because almost an entire book is based on recorded audio conversations of Feynman and his friend.
I was agonizing for the first 100 pages or so. It was too narcissistic. Maybe it’s okay, he was a kid and teenager at this time.
I expected more out of Manhattan project part of the book. The project was huge and really interesting but he tells about lockpicking and girls in his dormitory. Seriously? His wife died of tuberculosis and it was mentioned only briefly. Search on the web for his letter to his dead wife, it’s beautiful and touching (the book doesn’t mention it).
The rest wasn’t very interesting. Want to know about his first drunk fight? Want to know the name of one instrument Brazilians use in the carnival? Then it’s for you.
The last chapter is very good (as it was probably actually written by Feynman). It describes why modern science (and education) is so fucked up. I respect that, it’s very unusual confession from the insider.
When a person has been negative to you, and then you do something like that, they’re usually a hundred percent the other way, kind of to compensate. He got me other jobs, and kept telling everybody what a tremendous genius I was, saying, “He fixes radios by thinking!” The whole idea of thinking, to fix a radio—a little boy stops and thinks, and figures out how to do it—he never thought that was possible.
Among the desserts there was some kind of coffee cake that came out very pretty on a doily, on a little plate. But if you would go in the back you’d see a man called the pantry man. His problem was to get the stuff ready for desserts. Now this man must have been a miner, or something—heavy built, with very stubby, rounded, thick fingers. He’d take this stack of doilies, which are manufactured by some sort of stamping process, all stuck together, and he’d take these stubby fingers and try to separate the doilies to put them on the plates. I always heard him say, “Damn deez doilies!” while he was doing this, and I remember thinking, “What a contrast—the person sitting at the table gets this nice cake on a doilied plate, while the pantry man back there with the stubby thumbs is saying, ‘Damn deez doilies!’” So that was the difference between the real world and what it looked like.
After the lecture, the guy who had invited me said, “Well, how did you like it?”
–“Just fine,” I said. “The only part I didn’t understand was the part about lecithin. What is lecithin?”
The guy begins to explain in a monotonous voice: “All living creatures, both plant and animal, are made of little bricklike objects called ‘cells’.
–“Listen,” I said, impatiently, “I know all that; otherwise I wouldn’t be in the course. What is lecithin?”
–“I don’t know.”.
It turned out that what happened was this. The woman who cleans the rooms in the dormitory opens this door, and all of a sudden there is trouble: somebody is sleeping with one of the guys! She reports to the chief charwoman, the chief charwoman reports to the lieutenant, the lieutenant reports to the major. It goes all the way up through the generals to the governing board.
What are they going to do? They’re going to think about it, that’s what! But, in the meantime, what instructions go down through the captains, down through the majors, through the lieutenants, through the chars’ chief, through the charwoman? “Just put things back the way they are, clean ‘em up, and see what happens.” Next day same report. For four days, they worried up there about what they were going to do. Finally they promulgated a rule: No Women in the Men’s Dormitory! And that caused such a stink down below that they had to elect somebody to represent the ….
I looked at it and said, “That looks pretty good to me. Let’s see what you have in there.”
–“I’ll be very glad to show it to you,” he said, putting in the key and opening the drawer. “If,” he said, “you hadn’t already seen it yourself.”
The trouble with playing a trick on a highly intelligent man like Mr. Teller is that the time it takes him to figure out from the moment that he sees there is something wrong till he understands exactly what happened is too damn small to give you any pleasure.
Then the son told me what happened. The last time he was there, Bohr said to his son, “Remember the name of that little fellow in the back over there? He’s the only guy who’s not afraid of me, and will say when I’ve got a crazy idea. So next time when we want to discuss ideas, we’re not going to be able to do it with these guys who say everything is yes, yes, Dr. Bohr. Get that guy and we’ll talk with him first.”
I was always dumb in that way. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried about the physics. If the idea looked lousy, I said it looked lousy. If it looked good, I said it looked good. Simple proposition.
I’ve always lived that way. It’s nice, it’s pleasant—if you can do it. I’m lucky in my life that I can do this.
At the end of the whole physical examination there’s an army officer who decides whether you’re in or you’re out. For instance, if there’s something the matter with your hearing, he has to decide if it’s serious enough to keep you out of the army. And because the army was scraping the bottom of the barrel for new recruits, this officer wasn’t going to take anything from anybody. He was tough as nails. For instance, the fellow ahead of me had two bones sticking out from the back of his neck—some kind of displaced vertebra, or something—and this army officer had to get up from his desk and feel them—he had to make sure they were real!
I figure this is the place I’ll get this whole misunderstanding straightened out. When it’s my turn, I hand my papers to the officer, and I’m ready to explain everything, but the officer doesn’t look up. He sees the “D” next to “Psychiatric,” immediately reaches for the rejection stamp, doesn’t ask me any questions, doesn’t say anything; he just stamps my papers “REJECTED,” and hands me my 4-F paper, still looking at his desk.
The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things.
We went into the bar, and before I sat down, I said, “Listen, before I buy you a drink, I want to know one thing: Will you sleep with me tonight?”
So it worked even with an ordinary girl! But no matter how effective the lesson was, I never really used it after that. I didn’t enjoy doing it that way. But it was interesting to know that things worked much differently from how I was brought up.
After the lecture some students came up to me in a little delegation, and told me that I didn’t understand the backgrounds that they have, that they can study without doing the problems, that they have already learned arithmetic, and that this stuff was beneath them.
So I kept going with the class, and no matter how complicated or obviously advanced the work was becoming, they were never handing a damn thing in. Of course I realized what it was: They couldn’t do it!
One other thing I could never get them to do was to ask questions. Finally, a student explained it to me: “If I ask you a question during the lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me, ‘What are you wasting our time for in the class? We’re trying to learn something. And you’re stopping him by asking a question’.”.
Then I say, “The main purpose of my talk is to demonstrate to you that no science is being taught in Brazil!”
I can see them stir, thinking, “What? No science? This is absolutely crazy! We have all these classes.”
So I tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I came to Brazil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it’s amazing you don’t find many physicists in Brazil—why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it.
Then I gave the analogy of a Greek scholar who loves the Greek language, who knows that in his own country there aren’t many children studying Greek. But he comes to another country, where he is delighted to find everybody studying Greek—even the smaller kids in the elementary schools. He goes to the examination of a student who is coming to get his degree in Greek, and asks him, “What were Socrates’ ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty?”—and the student can’t answer. Then he asks the student, What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?” the student lights up and goes, “Brrrrrrrrr-up ”—he tells you everything, word for word, that Socrates said, in beautiful Greek.
But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was the relationship between Truth and Beauty!
What this Greek scholar discovers is, the students in another country learn Greek by first learning to pronounce the letters, then the words, and then sentences and paragraphs. They can recite, word for word, what Socrates said, without realizing that those Greek words actually mean something. To the student they are all artificial sounds. Nobody has ever translated them into words the students can understand.
I said, “That’s how it looks to me, when I see you teaching the kids ‘science’ here in Brazil.” (Big blast, right?)
Then I held up the elementary physics textbook they were using. “There are no experimental results mentioned anywhere in this book, except in one place where there is a ball, rolling down an inclined plane, in which it says how far the ball got after one second, two seconds, three seconds, and so on. The numbers have ‘errors’ in them—that is, if you look at them, you think you’re looking at experimental results, because the numbers are a little above, or a little below, the theoretical values. The book even talks about having to correct the experimental errors—very fine. The trouble is, when you calculate the value of the acceleration constant from these values, you get the right answer. But a ball rolling down an inclined plane, if it is actually done, has an inertia to get it to turn, and will, if you do the experiment, produce five-sevenths of the right answer, because of the extra energy needed to go into the rotation of the ball. Therefore this single example of experimental ‘results’ is obtained from a fake experiment. Nobody had rolled such a ball, or they would never have gotten those results.
Then something happened which was totally unexpected for me. One of the students got up and said, “I’m one of the two students whom Mr. Feynman referred to at the end of his talk. I was not educated in Brazil; I was educated in Germany, and I’ve just come to Brazil this year.”
The other student who had done well in class had a similar thing to say. And the professor I had mentioned got up and said, “I was educated here in Brazil during the war, when, fortunately, all of the professors had left the university, so I learned everything by reading alone. Therefore I was not really educated under the Brazilian system.”
I didn’t expect that. I knew the system was bad, but 100 percent—it was terrible.
When you’re young, you have all these things to worry about—should you go there, what about your mother. And you worry, and try to decide, but then something else comes up. It’s much easier to just plain decide. Never mind—nothing is going to change your mind. I did that once when I was a student at MIT. I got sick and tired of having to decide what kind of dessert I was going to have at the restaurant, so I decided it would always be chocolate ice cream, and never worried about it again—I had the solution to that problem. Anyway, I decided it would always be Caltech.
We were so disappointed, and we couldn’t understand how you could turn down such a terrific offer.”
–“It was easy,” I said, “because I never let them tell me what the offer was.”
A week later I got a letter from her. I opened it, and the first sentence said, “The salary they were offering was—,” a tremendous amount of money, three or four times what I was making. Staggering! Her letter continued, “I told you the salary before you could read any further. Maybe now you want to reconsider, because they’ve told me the position is still open, and we’d very much like to have you.”
So I wrote them back a letter that said, “After reading the salary, I’ve decided that I must refuse. The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do—get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things … With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I’d worry about her, what she’s doing; I’d get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn’t be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess! What I’ve always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I’ve decided that I can’t accept your offer.”.
One day he was teaching me the word for “see.” “All right,” he said. “You want to say, ‘May I see your garden?’ What do you say?”
I made up a sentence with the word that I had just learned.
“No, no!” he said. “When you say to someone, ‘Would you like to see my garden? you use the first ‘see.’ But when you want to see someone else’s garden, you must use another ‘see,’ which is more polite.”
“Would you like to glance at my lousy garden?” is essentially what you’re saying in the first case, but when you want to look at the other fella’s garden, you have to say something like, “May I observe your gorgeous garden?” So there’s two different words you have to use.
Then he gave me another one: “You go to a temple, and you want to look at the gardens …”
I made up a sentence, this time with the polite “see.”
“No, no!” he said. “In the temple, the gardens are much more elegant. So you have to say something that would be equivalent to ‘May I hang my eyes on your most exquisite gardens?’”
Three or four different words for one idea, because when I’m doing it, it’s miserable; when you’re doing it, it’s elegant.
I only read those reports, like a dope. Had I been a good physicist, when I thought of the original idea back at the Rochester Conference I would have immediately looked up “how strong do we know it’s T?”—that would have been the sensible thing to do. I would have recognized right away that I had already noticed it wasn’t satisfactorily proved.
Since then I never pay any attention to anything by “experts.” I calculate everything myself. When people said the quark theory was pretty good, I got two Ph. D.s, Finn Ravndal and Mark Kislinger, to go through the whole works with me, just so I could check that the thing was really giving results that fit fairly well, and that it was a significantly good theory. I’ll never make that mistake again, reading the experts’ opinions. Of course, you only live one life, and you make all your mistakes, and learn what not to do, and that’s the end of you.
We often had long discussions about art and science. I’d say things like, “Artists are lost: they don’t have any subject! They used to have the religious subjects, but they lost their religion and now they haven’t got anything. They don’t understand the technical world they live in; they don’t know anything about the beauty of the real world—the scientific world—so they don’t have anything in their hearts to paint.”
Jerry would reply that artists don’t need to have a physical subject; there are many emotions that can he expressed through art. Besides, art can be abstract. Furthermore, scientists destroy the beauty of nature when they pick it apart and turn it into mathematical equations.
She and her husband had gone to the exhibit, and they both liked the drawing very much. “Why don’t we buy it?” she suggested.
Her husband was the kind of a man who could never do anything right away. “Let’s think about it a while,” he said.
She realized his birthday was a few months ahead, so she went back the same day and bought it herself.
That night when he came home from work, he was depressed. She finally got it out of him: He thought it would be nice to buy her that picture, but when he went back to the exhibit, he was told that the picture had already been sold. So she had it to surprise him on his birthday.
What I got out of that story was something still very new to me: I understood at last what art is really for, at least in certain respects. It gives somebody, individually, pleasure. You can make something that somebody likes so much that they’re depressed, or they’re happy, on account of that damn thing you made! In science, it’s sort of general and large: You don’t know the individuals who have appreciated it directly.
And how many times per week would you typically go to Gianonni’s?”
–“Five, six times a week.” (That got into the papers: The Caltech professor of physics goes to see topless dancing six times a week.)
There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read—something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on that list. I had this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”
So I stopped—at random—and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read.”.
There was only one thing that happened at that meeting that was pleasant or amusing. At this conference, every word that every guy said at the plenary session was so important that they had a stenotypist there, typing every goddamn thing. Somewhere on the second day the stenotypist came up to me and said, “What profession are you? Surely not a professor.”
–“I am a professor,” I said.
–“Oh! That must be the reason,” he said.
–“Reason for what?”
He said, “You see, I’m a stenotypist, and I type everything that is said here. Now, when the other fellas talk, I type what they say, but I don’t understand what they’re saying. But every time you get up to ask a question or to say something, I understand exactly what you mean—what the question is, and what you’re saying—so I thought you can’t be a professor!”.
Finally I tried to assure the rabbinical students that the electric spark that was bothering them when they pushed the elevator buttons was not fire. I said, “Electricity is not fire. It’s not a chemical process, as fire is.”
–“Oh?” they said.
–“Of course, there’s electricity in amongst the atoms in a fire.”
–“Aha!” they said.
–“And in every other phenomenon that occurs in the world.”
I even proposed a practical solution for eliminating the spark. “If that’s what’s bothering you, you can put a condenser across the switch, so the electricity will go on and off without any spark whatsoever—anywhere.” But for some reason, they didn’t like that idea either.
It really was a disappointment. Here they are, slowly coming to life, only to better interpret the Talmud. Imagine! In modern times like this, guys are studying to go into society and do something—to be a rabbi—and the only way they think that science might be interesting is because their ancient, provincial, medieval problems are being confounded slightly by some new phenomena.
It was a pretty big job, and I worked all the time at it down in the basement. My wife says that during this period it was like living over a volcano. It would be quiet for a while, but then all of a sudden, “BLLLLLOOOOOOWWWWW!!!!”—there would be a big explosion from the “volcano” below. The reason was that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for “sets”) which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren’t accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous—they weren’t smart enough to understand what was meant by “rigor.” They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn’t understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.
I understood what they were trying to do. Many people thought we were behind the Russians after Sputnik, and some mathematicians were asked to give advice on how to teach math by using some of the rather interesting modern concepts of mathematics. The purpose was to enhance mathematics for the children who found it dull.
I’ll give you an example: They would talk about different bases of numbers—five, six, and so on—to show the possibilities. That would be interesting for a kid who could understand base ten—something to entertain his mind. But what they had turned it into, in these books, was that every child had to learn another base! And then the usual horror would come: “Translate these numbers, which are written in base seven, to base five.” Translating from one base to another is an utterly useless thing. If you can do it, maybe it’s entertaining; if you can’t do it, forget it. There’s no point to it.
Anyhow, I’m looking at all these books, all these books, and none of them has said anything about using arithmetic in science. If there are any examples on the use of arithmetic at all (most of the time it’s this abstract new modern nonsense), they are about things like buying stamps.
This question of trying to figure out whether a book is good or bad by looking at it carefully or by taking the reports of a lot of people who looked at it carelessly is like this famous old problem: Nobody was permitted to see the Emperor of China, and the question was, What is the length of the Emperor of China’s nose? To find out, you go all over the country asking people what they think the length of the Emperor of China’s nose is, and you average it. And that would be very “accurate” because you averaged so many people. But it’s no way to find anything out; when you have a very wide range of people who contribute without looking carefully at it, you don’t improve your knowledge of the situation by averaging.
The same thing happened: something would look good at first and then turn out to be horrifying. For example, there was a book that started out with four pictures: first there was a wind-up toy; then there was an automobile; then there was a boy riding a bicycle; then there was something else. And underneath each picture it said, “What makes it go?”
I thought, “I know what it is: They’re going to talk about mechanics, how the springs work inside the toy; about chemistry, how the engine of the automobile works; and biology, about how the muscles work.”
It was the kind of thing my father would have talked about: “What makes it go? Everything goes because the sun is shining.” And then we would have fun discussing it:
–“No, the toy goes because the spring is wound up,” I would say.
–“How did the spring get wound up?” he would ask.
–“I wound it up.”
–“And how did you get moving?”
–“And food grows only because the sun is shining. So it’s because the sun is shining that all these things are moving.” That would get the concept across that motion is simply the transformation of the sun’s power.
I turned the page. The answer was, for the wind-up toy, “Energy makes it go.” And for the boy on the bicycle, “Energy makes it go.” For everything, “Energy makes it go.”
Now that doesn’t mean anything. Suppose it’s “Wakalixes.” That’s the general principle: “Wakalixes makes it go.” There’s no knowledge coming in. The child doesn’t learn anything; it’s just a word!
What they should have done is to look at the wind-up toy, see that there are springs inside, learn about springs, learn about wheels, and never mind “energy.” Later on, when the children know something about how the toy actually works, they can discuss the more general principles of energy.
It’s also not even true that “energy makes it go,” because if it stops, you could say, “energy makes it stop” just as well, What they’re talking about is concentrated energy being transformed into more dilute forms, which is a very subtle aspect of energy. Energy is neither increased nor decreased in these examples; it’s just changed from one form to another. And when the things stop, the energy is changed into heat, into general chaos.
But that’s the way all the books were: They said things that were useless, mixed-up, ambiguous, confusing, and partially incorrect. How anybody can learn science from these books, I don’t know, because it’s not science.
For example, if you’re doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid—not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could possibly explain your results; and things you thought of that you’ve eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked—to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Millikan measured the charge on an electron by an experiment with falling oil drops, and got an answer which we now know not to be quite right. It’s a little bit off, because he had the incorrect value for the viscosity of air. It’s interesting to look at the history of measurements of the charge of the electron, after Millikan. If you plot them as a function of time, you find that one is a little bigger than Millikan’s, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, and the next one’s a little bit bigger than that, until finally they settle down to a number which is higher.
Why didn’t they discover that the new number was higher right away? It’s a thing that scientists are ashamed of—this history—because it’s apparent that people did things like this: When they got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong—and they would look for and find a reason why something might be wrong. When they got a number closer to Millikan’s value they didn’t look so hard. And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that. We’ve learned those tricks nowadays, and now we don’t have that kind of a disease.
Other kinds of errors are more characteristic of poor science. When I was at Cornell, I often talked to the people in the psychology department. One of the students told me she wanted to do an experiment that went something like this—it had been found by others that under certain circumstances, X, rats did something, A. She was curious as to whether, if she changed the circumstances to Y, they would still do A. So her proposal was to do the experiment under circumstances Y and see if they still did A.
I explained to her that it was necessary first to repeat in her laboratory the experiment of the other person—to do it under condition X to see if she could also get result A, and then change to Y and see if A changed. Then she would know that the real difference was the thing she thought she had under control.
She was very delighted with this new idea, and went to her professor. And his reply was, no, you cannot do that, because the experiment has already been done and you would be wasting time. This was in about 1947 or so, and it seems to have been the general policy then to not try to repeat psychological experiments, but only to change the conditions and see what happens.
Nowadays there’s a certain danger of the same thing happening, even in the famous field of physics. I was shocked to hear of an experiment done at the big accelerator at the National Accelerator Laboratory, where a person used deuterium. In order to compare his heavy hydrogen results to what might happen with light hydrogen, he had to use data from someone else’s experiment on light, hydrogen, which was done on different apparatus. When asked why, he said it was because he couldn’t get time on the program (because there’s so little time and it’s such expensive apparatus) to do the experiment with light hydrogen on this apparatus because there wouldn’t be any new result. And so the men in charge of programs at NAL are so anxious for new results, in order to get more money to keep the thing going for public relations purposes, they are destroying—possibly—the value of the experiments themselves, which is the whole purpose of the thing. It is often hard for the experimenters there to complete their work as their scientific integrity demands.
He finally found that they could tell by the way the floor sounded when they ran over it. And he could only fix that by putting his corridor in sand. So he covered one after another of all possible clues and finally was able to fool the rats so that they had to learn to go in the third door. If he relaxed any of his conditions, the rats could tell.
Now, from a scientific standpoint, that is an A-number one experiment. That is the experiment that makes rat-running experiments sensible, because it uncovers the clues that the rat is really using—not what you think it’s using. And that is the experiment that tells exactly what conditions you have to use in order to be careful and control everything in an experiment with rat-running.
I looked into the subsequent history of this research. The next experiment, and the one after that, never referred to Mr. Young. They never used any of his criteria of putting the corridor on sand, or being very careful. They just went right on running rats in the same old way, and paid no attention to the great discoveries of Mr. Young, and his papers are not referred to, because he didn’t discover anything about the rats. In fact, he discovered all the things you have to do to discover something about rats. But not paying attention to experiments like that is a characteristic of cargo cult science.