"What Do You Care What Other People Think?"

The fact that the colors in the flower have evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; that means insects can see the colors. That adds a question: does this aesthetic sense we have also exist in lower forms of life?


I have a limited intelligence and I use it in a particular direction.


We had the Encyclopaedia Britannica at home. When I was a small boy he used to sit me on his lap and read to me from the Britannica. We would be reading, say, about dinosaurs. It would be talking about the Tyrannosaurus rex, and it would say something like, “This dinosaur is twenty-five feet high and its head is six feet across.” My father would stop reading and say, “Now, let’s see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard, he would be tall enough to put his head through our window up here.” (We were on the second floor.) “But his head would be too wide to fit in the window.” Everything he read to me he would translate as best he could into some reality.


learned from my father to translate: everything I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it’s really saying.


One kid says to me, “See that bird? What kind of bird is that?” I said, “I haven’t the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is.” He says, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you anything!” But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: “See that bird?” he says. “It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian, it’s a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it’s a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese, it’s a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.”


(I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)


When I pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon. And when I’m pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon. Why is that?” “That, nobody knows,” he said. “The general principle is that things which are moving tend to keep on moving, and things which are standing still tend to stand still, unless you push them hard. This tendency is called ‘inertia,’ but nobody knows why it’s true.” Now, that’s a deep understanding. He didn’t just give me the name.


there were some miracles I never did figure out. For instance, there was a story in which Moses throws down his staff and it turns into a snake. I couldn’t figure out what the witnesses saw that made them think his staff was a snake. If I had thought back to when I was much younger, the Santa Claus story could have provided a clue for me. But it didn’t hit me hard enough at the time to produce the possibility that I should doubt the truth of stories that don’t fit with nature. When I found out that Santa Claus wasn’t real, I wasn’t upset; rather, I was relieved that there was a much simpler phenomenon to explain how so many children all over the world got presents on the same night! The story had been getting pretty complicated—it was getting out of hand.


Arlene was having trouble with her homework in philosophy class. “We’re studying Descartes,” she said. “He starts out with ‘Cogito, ergo sum’—‘I think, therefore I am’—and ends up proving the existence of God.” “Impossible!” I said, without stopping to think that I was doubting the great Descartes.


(It was a reaction I learned from my father: have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look at what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, “Is it reasonable?”)


Arlene understood me. She understood, when she looked at it, that no matter how impressive and important this philosophy stuff was supposed to be, it could be taken lightly—you could just think about the words, instead of worrying about the fact that Descartes said it.


I was terrible in English. I couldn’t stand the subject. It seemed to me ridiculous to worry about whether you spelled something wrong or not, because English spelling is just a human convention—it has nothing to do with anything real, anything from nature. Any word can be spelled just as well a different way. I was impatient with all this English stuff.


One of the diseases I told Arlene about was Hodgkin’s disease. When she next saw her doctor, she asked him about it: “Could it be Hodgkin’s disease?” He said, “Well, yes, that’s a possibility.” When she went to the county hospital, the doctor wrote the following diagnosis: “Hodgkin’s disease—?” So I realized that the doctor didn’t know any more than I did about this problem.


I didn’t catch on. The doctor was checking a certain possibility, and if I had been smart, I would have asked him what it was.


“Biopsy shows tuberculosis of the lymphatic gland.” That really got me. I mean, that was the first goddamn thing on the list! I passed it by, because the book said it was easy to diagnose, and because the doctors were having so much trouble trying to figure out what it was. I assumed they had checked the obvious case. And it was the obvious case: the man who had come running out of the meeting room asking “Do you spit up blood?” had the right idea. He knew what it probably was! I felt like a jerk, because I had passed over the obvious possibility by using circumstantial evidence—which isn’t any good—and by assuming the doctors were more intelligent than they were.


The next morning I woke up and discovered I’d been sleeping in a garbage dump—a landfill! I felt foolish, and laughed.


Arlene sent me a catalog describing huge boats, from warships to ocean liners—great big boats. I wrote to her: “What’s the idea?” She writes back: “I just thought that maybe, when we get married, we could buy a boat.” I write, “Are you crazy? It’s all out of proportion!” Then another catalog comes: it’s for big yachts—forty-foot schooners and stuff like that—for very rich people. She writes, “Since you said no to the other boats, maybe we could get one of these.” I write, “Look: you’re way out of scale!” Soon another catalog comes: it’s for various kinds of motor boats—Chriscraft this and that. I write, “Too expensive!” Finally, I get a note: “This is your last chance, Richard. You’re always saying no.” It turns out a friend of hers has a rowboat she wants to sell for $15—a used rowboat—and maybe we could buy it so we could row around in the water next summer. So, yes. I mean, how can you say no after all that?


“What do you care what other people think?” (Arlene tortured me with that!)


Well, I didn’t know any Chinese, but one thing I’m good at is spending an infinite amount of time solving a puzzle.


If a Martian (who, we’ll imagine, never dies except by accident) came to Earth and saw this peculiar race of creatures—these humans who live about seventy or eighty years, knowing that death is going to come—it would look to him like a terrible problem of psychology to live under those circumstances, knowing that life is only temporary. Well, we humans somehow figure out how to live despite this problem: we laugh, we joke, we live.


By that experience Tukey and I discovered that what goes on in different people’s heads when they think they’re doing the same thing—something as simple as counting—is different for different people. And we discovered that you can externally and objectively test how the brain works: you don’t have to ask a person how he counts and rely on his own observations of himself; instead, you observe what he can and can’t do while he counts. The test is absolute. There’s no way to beat it; no way to fake it.


It’s natural to explain an idea in terms of what you already have in your head. Concepts are piled on top of each other: this idea is taught in terms of that idea, and that idea is taught in terms of another idea, which comes from counting, which can be so different for different people! I often think about that, especially when I’m teaching some esoteric technique such as integrating Bessel functions. When I see equations, I see the letters in colors—I don’t know why. As I’m talking, I see vague pictures of Bessel functions from Jahnke and Emde’s book, with lighttan j’s, slightly violet-bluish n’s, and dark brown x’s flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.


Everybody’s got long faces about Herman, but I still don’t know who Herman is—though I’m sure that if I knew, I’d feel very sorry that he was dead!


It came time to carry the casket out, and I took my place among the pallbearers. I very carefully laid Herman to rest in his grave, because I knew he would have appreciated it. But I haven’t any idea, to this day, who Herman was.


The real question of government versus private enterprise is argued on too philosophical and abstract a basis. Theoretically, planning may be good. But nobody has ever figured out the cause of government stupidity—and until they do (and find the cure), all ideal plans will fall into quicksand.


I am not getting anything out of the meeting. I am learning nothing. Because there are no experiments this field is not an active one, so few of the best men are doing work in it. The result is that there are hosts of dopes here (126) and it is not good for my blood pressure: such inane things are said and seriously discussed that I get into arguments outside the formal sessions (say, at lunch) whenever anyone asks me a question or starts to tell me about his “work.” The “work” is always: (1) completely un-understandable, (2) vague and indefinite, (3) something correct that is obvious and self-evident, but worked out by a long and difficult analysis, and presented as an important discovery, or (4) a claim based on the stupidity of the author that some obvious and correct fact, accepted and checked for years, is, in fact, false (these are the worst: no argument will convince the idiot), (5) an attempt to do something probably impossible, but certainly of no utility, which, it is finally revealed at the end, fails (dessert arrives and is eaten), or (6) just plain wrong. There is a great deal of “activity in the field” these days, but this “activity” is mainly in showing that the previous “activity” of somebody else resulted in an error or in nothing useful or in something promising. It is like a lot of worms trying to get out of a bottle by crawling all over each other. It is not that the subject is hard; it is that the good men are occupied elsewhere. Remind me not to come to any more gravity conferences!


I said that the development of greatest importance to mathematics in Europe was the discovery by Tartaglia that you can solve a cubic equation: although it is of very little use in itself, the discovery must have been psychologically wonderful because it showed that a modern man could do something no ancient Greek could do. It therefore helped in the Renaissance, which was the freeing of man from the intimidation of the ancients.


His most valuable contribution to physics is as a sustainer of morale; when he bursts into the room with his latest brain-wave and proceeds to expound on it with the most lavish sound effects and waving about of the arms, life at least is not dull.


When I heard the investigation would be in Washington, my immediate reaction was not to do it: I have a principle of not going anywhere near Washington or having anything to do with government, so my immediate reaction was—how am I gonna get out of this?


a guy came in to tell me about the orbiter. I felt terrible, because he had come in on a Saturday to see me, and it didn’t look like the orbiter had anything to do with the accident. I was having enough trouble understanding the rest of the shuttle—there’s only a certain amount of information per cubic inch a brain can hold—so I let him tell me some of the stuff, but soon I had to tell him that it was getting too detailed, so we just had a pleasant conversation.


That’s all he had to tell me. It was a clue for which I got a lot of credit later, but it was his observation. A professor of theoretical physics always has to be told what to look for. He just uses his knowledge to explain the observations of the experimenters!


I think, “I could do this tomorrow while we’re all sittin’ around, listening to this Cook crap we heard today. We always get ice water in those meetings; that’s something I can do to save time.” Then I think, “No, that would be gauche.” But then I think of Luis Alvarez, the physicist. He’s a guy I admire for his gutsiness and sense of humor, and I think, “If Alvarez was on this commission, he would do it, and that’s good enough for


I think, “I could do this tomorrow while we’re all sittin’ around, listening to this Cook crap we heard today. We always get ice water in those meetings; that’s something I can do to save time.” Then I think, “No, that would be gauche.” But then I think of Luis Alvarez, the physicist. He’s a guy I admire for his gutsiness and sense of humor, and I think, “If Alvarez was on this commission, he would do it, and that’s good enough for me.”


I waited outside, in my suitcoat and tie, a costume I had assumed since I came to Washington in order to move among the natives without being too conspicuous


I wanted to be naive: I’d find out what happened to the shuttle first; I’d worry about the big political pressures later.


already smell certain rats that I will not forget, because I just love the smell of rats, for it is the spoor of exciting adventure.


It reminded me of when I tried to make things work better at my aunt’s hotel: your method is better than the regular way, but then you have a little accident…


The assembly workers had other observations and suggestions. They were concerned that if two rocket sections scrape as they’re being put together, metal filings could get into the rubber seals and damage them. They even had some suggestions for redesigning the seal. Those suggestions weren’t very good, but the point is, the workers were thinking! I got the impression that they were not undisciplined; they were very interested in what they were doing, but they weren’t being given much encouragement. Nobody was paying much attention to them. It was remarkable that their morale was as high as it was under the circumstances


If you’re asked to contribute months of time and effort to the government (and you lose money you would have made consulting for a company), the government ought to appreciate it a little more than to be cheap about paying you back. I’m not trying to make money off the government, but I’m not wanting to lose money, either! I said, “I’m not going to sign this.”


They kept referring to the problem by some complicated name—a “pressure-induced vorticity oscillatory wa-wa,” or something. I said, “Oh, you mean a whistle!”


When I left the meeting, I had the definite impression that I had found the same game as with the seals: management reducing criteria and accepting more and more errors that weren’t designed into the device, while the engineers are screaming from below, “HELP!” and “This is a RED ALERT!”


One guy muttered something about higher-ups in NASA wanting to cut back on testing to save money: “They keep saying we always pass the tests, so what’s the use of having so many?”


Every once in a while we’d interrupt that to discuss the typography and the color of the cover. And after each discussion, we were asked to vote. I thought it would be most efficient to vote for the same color we had decided on in the meeting before, but it turned out I was always in the minority! We finally chose red. (It came out blue.)


(By the way: everything had 23 versions. It has been noted that computers, which are supposed to increase the speed at which we do things, have not increased the speed at which we write reports: we used to make only three versions—because they’re so hard to type—and now we make 23 versions!)


I was in a very good fettle, for some reason. I had already lost, and I knew what I needed, so I could focus easily. I had no difficulty admitting complete idiocy—which is usually the case when I deal with the world—and I didn’t think there was any law of nature which said I had to give in. I just kept going, and didn’t waver at all.


either the guys at the top didn’t know, in which case they should have known, or


either the guys at the top didn’t know, in which case they should have known, or they did know, in which case they’re lying to us.


I invented a theory which I have discussed with a considerable number of people, and many people have explained to me why it’s wrong. But I don’t remember their explanations, so I cannot resist telling you what I think led to this lack of communication in NASA.


By the time the commission was over, I understood much better the character of operations in Washington and in NASA. I learned, by seeing how they worked, that the people in a big system like NASA know what has to be done—without being told.


When I see a congressman giving his opinion on something, I always wonder if it represents his real opinion or if it represents an opinion that he’s designed in order to be elected. It seems to be a central problem for politicians. So I often wonder: what is the relation of integrity to working in the government?


There is nothing so wrong with this analysis as believing the answer!


The proper way to save money is to curtail the number of requested changes, not the quality of testing for each.


Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed—schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met.


believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy—and when he talks about a nonscientific matter, he sounds as naive as anyone untrained in the matter. Since the question of the value of science is not a scientific subject, this talk is dedicated to proving my point—by example.


we usually don’t get anywhere when we do think about


I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy—and when he talks about a nonscientific matter, he sounds as naive as anyone untrained in the matter. Since the question of the value of science is not a scientific subject, this talk is dedicated to proving my point—by example. The first way in which


I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy—and when he talks about a nonscientific matter, he sounds as naive as anyone untrained in the matter. Since the question of the value of science is not a scientific subject, this talk is dedicated to proving my point—by example.


To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.


Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.


Hardly anyone can understand the importance of an idea, it is so remarkable. Except that, possibly, some children catch on. And when a child catches on to an idea like that, we have a scientist. It is too late* for them to get the spirit when they are in our universities, so we must attempt to explain these ideas to children.


This is the philosophy that guided the men who made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one really knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a system by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, and tossed out if necessary, with more new ideas brought in—a trial-and-error system.