The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

He was not satisfied with me in the respect that I never was able to explain any of the things that he didn’t understand (LAUGHS). So he was unsuccessful, he sent me through all these universities in order to find out these things and he never did find out

They [must have] expected me to be wonderful to offer me a job like this and I wasn’t wonderful, and therefore I realized a new principle, which was that I’m not responsible for what other people think I am able to do; I don’t have to be good because they think I’m going to be good.

I don’t see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize–I’ve already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it [my work]–those are the real things, the honors are unreal to me.

To do high, real good physics work you do need absolutely solid lengths of time, so that when you’re putting ideas together which are vague and hard to remember, it’s very much like building a house of cards and each of the cards is shaky, and if you forget one of them the whole thing collapses again. You don’t know how you got there and you have to build them up again, and if you’re interrupted and kind of forget half the idea of how the cards went together–your cards being different-type parts of the ideas, ideas of different kinds that have to go together to build up the idea–the main point is, you put the stuff together, it’s quite a tower and it’s easy [for it] to slip, it needs a lot of concentration–that is, solid time to think–and if you’ve got a job in administrating anything like that, then you don’t have the solid time.

Because of the success of science, there is, I think, a kind of pseudoscience. Social science is an example of a science which is not a science; they don’t do [things] scientifically, they follow the forms–or you gather data, you do so-and-so and so forth but they don’t get any laws, they haven’t found out anything.

Start out understanding religion by saying everything is possibly wrong. Let us see. As soon as you do that, you start sliding down an edge which is hard to recover from and so on. With the scientific view, or my father’s view, that we should look to see what’s true and what may be or may not be true, once you start doubting, which I think to me is a very fundamental part of my soul, to doubt and to ask, and when you doubt and ask it gets a little harder to believe.

I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.

All things that we make are Nature. We arrange it in a way to suit our purpose, to make a calculation for a purpose. In a magnet there is some kind of relation, if you wish; there are some kinds of computations going on, just like there are in the solar system, in a way of thinking. But that might not be the calculation we want to make at the moment. What we need to make is a device for which we can change the programs and let it compute the problem that we want to solve, not just its own magnet problem that it likes to solve for itself. I can’t use the solar system for a computer unless it just happens that the problem that someone gave me was to find the motion of the planets, in which case all I have to do is to watch.

The trouble with playing a trick on a highly intelligent man like Mr. Teller is 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!

I got an idea. Maybe it’s a valve? So, in order to find out whether it’s a valve or not I take my finger and I put it down in the middle of one of the blueprints on page number 3 down in the end and I said, “What happens if this valve gets stuck?” figuring they’re going to say, “That’s not a valve, sir, that’s a window.”

“You’re a genius. I got the idea you were a genius when you went through the plant once and you could tell them about evaporator C-21 in building 90-207 the next morning,” he says, “but what you have just done is so fantastic, I want to know how, how do you do something like that?” I told him, you try to find out whether it’s a valve or not.

Well, Mr. Frankle started this program and began to suffer from a disease, the computer disease, that anybody who works with computers now knows about. It’s a very serious disease and it interferes completely with the work. It was a serious problem that we were trying to do. The disease with computers is you play with them.

From time to time we all try to communicate to our unscientific friends this worldview–and we get into difficulty most often because we get confused in trying to explain to them the latest questions, such as the meaning of the conservation of CP,* whereas they don’t know anything about the most preliminary things.

For four hundred years since Galileo we have been gathering information about the world which they don’t know. Now we are working on something way out, and at the limits of scientific knowledge.

I say, and I think you must all know from experience, that people–I mean the average person, the great majority of people, the enormous majority of people–are woefully, pitifully, absolutely ignorant of the science of the world that they live in, and they can stay that way.

Incidentally, about knowledge and wonder, Mr. Bernardini said we shouldn’t teach wonders but knowledge.

And now finally, as I’d like to show Galileo our world, I must show him something with a great deal of shame. If we look away from the science and look at the world around us, we find out something rather pitiful: that the environment that we live in is so actively, intensely unscientific. Galileo could say: “I noticed that Jupiter was a ball with moons and not a god in the sky. Tell me, what happened to the astrologers?” Well, they print their results in the newspapers, in the United States at least, in every daily paper every day. Why do we still have astrologers?

And another thing that bothers me, I might as well mention, are the things that the theologians in modern times can discuss, without feeling ashamed of themselves.

What’s the right way and the wrong way to report results? Disinterestedly, so that the other man is free to understand precisely what you are saying, and as nearly as possible not covering it with your desires. That this is a useful thing, that this is a thing which helps each of us to understand each other, in fact to develop in a way that isn’t personally in our own interest, but for the general development of ideas, is a very valuable thing. And so there is, if you will, a kind of scientific morality. I believe, hopelessly, that this morality should be extended much more widely; this idea, this kind of scientific morality, that such things as propaganda should be a dirty word. That a description of a country made by the people of another country should describe that country in a disinterested way.

The people who believe in faith healing have not to worry about science at all, because nobody argues with them. You don’t have to learn science if you don’t feel like it. So you can forget the whole business if it is too much mental strain, which it usually is. Why can you forget the whole business? Because we don’t do anything about it.

I believe that we should demand that people try in their own minds to obtain for themselves a more consistent picture of their own world; that they not permit themselves the luxury of having their brain cut in four pieces or two pieces even, and on one side they believe this and on the other side they believe that, but never try to compare the two points of view.

It is perfectly obvious to people from the outside that it is nothing to consider, and that Galileo’s recantation is not something that we need to discuss as demonstrating anything about Galileo, except that perhaps he was an old man and that the church was very powerful.

We are all saddened when we look at the world and see what few accomplishments we have made, compared to what we feel are the potentialities of human beings.

I will not now discuss how we are going to do it, but only what is possible in principle–in other words, what is possible according to the laws of physics. I am not inventing anti-gravity, which is possible someday only if the laws are not what we think. I am telling you what could be done if the laws are what we think; we are not doing it simply because we haven’t yet gotten around to it.

The same thrill, the same awe and mystery, come again and again when we look at any problem deeply enough. With more knowledge comes deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to penetrate deeper still. Never concerned that the answer may prove disappointing, but with pleasure and confidence we turn over each new stone to find unimagined strangeness leading on to more wonderful questions and mysteries–certainly a grand adventure!

The value of science remains unsung by singers, so you are reduced to hearing–not a song or a poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.

The paper is only interested in the use of the idea, not the idea itself. 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’s too late for them to get the spirit when they are in our universities, so we must attempt to explain these ideas to children. I would

We are all sad when we think of the wondrous potentialities human beings seem to have, as contrasted with their small accomplishments. Again and again people have thought that we could do much better.

They of the past saw in the nightmare of their times a dream for the future. We, of their future, see that their dreams, in certain ways surpassed, have in many ways remained dreams. The hopes for the future today are, in good share, those of yesterday.

In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant; if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, “This is it, boys, man is saved!” and thus doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.

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

If I were giving a talk on “what is mathematics?” I would have already answered you. Mathematics is looking for patterns.

To make my point still clearer, I shall pick out a certain science book to criticize unfavorably, which is unfair, because I am sure that with little ingenuity, I can find equally unfavorable things to say about others.

The race has ideas, but they are not necessarily profitable.

Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

I don’t believe in the idea that there are a few peculiar people capable of understanding math, and the rest of the world is normal. Math is a human discovery, and it’s no more complicated than humans can understand. I had a calculus book once that said, “What one fool can do, another can.”

What we’ve been able to work out about nature may look abstract and threatening to someone who hasn’t studied it, but it was fools who did it, and in the next generation, all the fools will understand it.

There’s a tendency to pomposity in all this, to make it all deep and profound. My son is taking a course in philosophy, and last night we were looking at something by Spinoza–and there was the most childish reasoning! There were all these Attributes, and Substances, all this meaningless chewing around, and we started to laugh. Now, how could we do that? Here’s this great Dutch philosopher, and we’re laughing at him. It’s because there was no excuse for it!

You can take every one of Spinoza’s propositions, and take the contrary propositions, and look at the world–and you can’t tell which is right. Sure, people were awed because he had the courage to take on these great questions, but it doesn’t do any good to have the courage if you can’t get anywhere with the question.

When I was in high school, I had this notion that you could take the importance of the problem and multiply by your chance of solving it. You know how a technically minded kid is, he likes the idea of optimizing everything . . . anyway, if you can get the right combination of those factors, you don’t spend your life getting nowhere with a profound problem, or solving lots of small problems that others could do just as well.

Feynman: There. See, you just have to know about the world. Physicists know about the world. Omni: Take it apart and put it back together? Feynman: Right. There’s always a little dirt, or infinity, or something.

Dirac’s suggestion that the fundamental constants change with time, or the idea that physical law was different at the instant of the Big Bang?

But the thing that’s unusual about good scientists is that while they’re doing whatever they’re doing, they’re not so sure of themselves as others usually are. They can live with steady doubt, think “maybe it’s so” and act on that, all the time knowing it’s only “maybe.”

Many people find that difficult; they think it means detachment or coldness. It’s not coldness! It’s a much deeper and warmer understanding, and it means you can be digging somewhere where you’re temporarily convinced you’ll find the answer, and somebody comes up and says, “Have you seen what they’re coming up with over there?”, and you look up and say “Jeez! I’m in the wrong place!” It happens all the time.

Dirac said that to understand a physical problem means to be able to see the answer without solving equations. Maybe he exaggerated; maybe solving equations is experience you need to gain understanding–but until you do understand, you’re just solving equations.

Omni: Will a historian of science someday trace the careers of your students as others have done with the students of Retherford and Niels Bohr and Fermi? Feynman: I doubt it. I’m disappointed with my students all the time. I’m not a teacher who knows what he’s doing.

Look, give me a little time and I’ll give a lecture on anything in physiology. I’d be delighted to study it and find out all about it, because I can guarantee you it would be very interesting. I don’t know anything, but I do know that everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough.

I tried to find a principle for discovering more of these kinds of things, and came up with the following system. Anytime you find yourself in a conversation at a cocktail party in which you do not feel uncomfortable that the hostess might come around and say, “Why are you fellows talking shop?” or that your wife will come around and say, “Why are you flirting again?”–then you can be sure you are talking about something about which nobody knows anything.

But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves–of having utter scientific integrity–is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.

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.

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 light-tan js, slightly violet-bluish ns, and dark brown xs flying around. And I wonder what the hell it must look like to the students.

I didn’t stop; I didn’t even consider that the motive for originally doing it was no longer there. And that’s one thing I did learn, that if you have some reason for doing something that’s very strong and you start working at it, you must look around every once in a while and find out if the original motives are still right.