"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman"

Richard P. Feynman

There were certain things I didn’t like, such as tipping. I thought we should be paid more, and not have to have any tips. But when I proposed that to the boss, I got nothing but laughter. She told everybody, “Richard doesn’t want his tips, hee, hee, hee; he doesn’t want his tips, ha, ha, ha.” The world is full of this kind of dumb smart-alec who doesn’t understand anything.

I tried to explain—it was my own aunt—that there was no reason not to do that, but you can’t say that to anybody who’s smart, who runs a hotel! I learned there that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world.

That was a very good way to get educated, working on the senior problems and learning how to pronounce things.

I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way—by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile!

People often think I’m a faker, but I’m usually honest, in a certain way—in such a way that often nobody believes me!

I also noticed that as you go to sleep the ideas continue, but they become less and less logically interconnected. You don’t notice that they’re not logically connected until you ask yourself, “What made me think of that?” and you try to work your way back, and often you can’t remember what the hell did make you think of that!

So you get every illusion of logical connection, but the actual fact is that the thoughts become more and more cockeyed until they’re completely disjointed, and beyond that, you fall asleep.

Now the company had this emergency problem to fix the pens, and my pal decided he needed a big microscope, and so on. He didn’t know what he was going to look at, or why, and it cost his company a lot of money for this fake research.

So I found hypnosis to be a very interesting experience. All the time you’re saying to yourself, “I could do that, but I won’t”—which is just another way of saying that you can’t.

Another guy got up, and another, and I tell you I have never heard such ingenious different ways of looking at a brick before. And, just like it should in all stories about philosophers, it ended up in complete chaos. In all their previous discussions they hadn’t even asked themselves whether such a simple object as a brick, much less an electron, is an “essential object.”

“We know all that!” “Oh,” I say, “you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology.” They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.

After the war, every summer I would go traveling by car somewhere in the United States. One year, after I was at Caltech, I thought, “This summer, instead of going to a different place, I’ll go to a different field.”

The other work on the phage I never wrote up—Edgar kept asking me to write it up, but I never got around to it. That’s the trouble with not being in your own field: You don’t take it seriously.

I tried at one point to make the ants go around in a circle, but I didn’t have enough patience to set it up. I could see no reason, other than lack of patience, why it couldn’t be done.

I thought I only had to correct the air resistance at different altitudes. Instead, my job was to invent a machine that would make the shell explode at the right moment, when the fuse won’t burn! I decided that was too hard for me and went back to Princeton.

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.

We walk a little further, and we see, under a streetlight, an enormous mass of leaves that had been collected—it was autumn—from the lawns. I say, “Hey! We could crawl in these leaves and sleep here!” I tried it; they were rather soft, I was tired of walking around, it would have been perfectly all right. But I didn’t want to get into trouble right away. Back at Los Alamos people had teased me (when I played drums and so on) about what kind of “professor” Cornell was going to get. They said I’d get a reputation right off by doing something silly, so I was trying to be a little dignified. I reluctantly gave up the idea of sleeping in the pile of leaves.

And then I thought to myself, “You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!” It was a brilliant idea: You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation in electrodynamics. And then quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing”—working, really—with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I had stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

I was a young professor at the time and I couldn’t say no very easily, so I agreed to do it.

Now, it’s some dopey legal thing, but when you give the patent to the government, the document you sign is not a legal document unless there’s some exchange, so the paper I signed said, “For the sum of one dollar, I, Richard P. Feynman, give this idea to the government …” I sign the paper. “Where’s my dollar?” “That’s just a formality,” he says. “We haven’t got any funds set up to give a dollar.” “You’ve got it all set up that I’m signing for the dollar,” I say. “I want my dollar!” “This is silly,” Smith protests. “No, it’s not,” I say. “It’s a legal document, You made me sign it, and I’m an honest man. There’s no fooling around about it.” “All right, all right!” he says, exasperated. “I’ll give you a dollar, from my pocket!”

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?”

In those days, the earth appeared to be older than the universe. The earth was four and a half billion, and the universe was only a couple, or three billion years old.

The night before I gave my talk there was a dinner, and the man who sat down next to me was none other than Professor Onsager, a topnotch expert in solid-state physics and the problems of liquid helium. He was one of these guys who doesn’t say very much, but any time he said anything, it was significant. “Well, Feynman,” he said in a gruff voice, “I hear you think you have understood liquid helium.” “Well, yes …” “Hoompf.” And that’s all he said to me during the whole dinner! So that wasn’t much encouragement.

I called up my sister in New York to thank her for getting me to sit down and work through that paper by Lee and Yang at the Rochester Conference. After feeling uncomfortable and behind, now I was in; I had made a discovery, just from what she suggested. I was able to enter physics again, so to speak, and I wanted to thank her for that. I told her that everything fit, except for the 9 percent.

On early occasions I was often stopped by the police, because I would be walking along, thinking, and then I’d stop—sometimes an idea comes that’s difficult enough that you can’t keep walking; you have to make sure of something.

Telegdi also sent us a letter, which wasn’t exactly scathing, but nevertheless showed he was convinced that our theory was wrong. At the end he wrote, “The F-G (Feynman—Gell-Mann) theory of beta decay is no F-G.”

The teacher doesn’t want to push you in some particular direction. So the drawing teacher has this problem of communicating how to draw by osmosis and not by instruction, while the physics teacher has the problem of always teaching techniques, rather than the spirit, of how to go about solving physical Problems. They

I understood that to sell a drawing is not to make money, but to be sure that it’s in the home of someone who really wants it; someone who would feel bad if they didn’t have it. This was interesting.

My idea was that artists don’t understand the underlying generality and beauty of nature and her laws (and therefore cannot portray this in their art).

Surely not a professor.” “I am a professor,” I said. “Of what?” “Of physics—science.” “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!”

I started to say that the idea of distributing everything evenly is based on a theory that there’s only X amount of stuff in the world, that somehow we took it away from the poorer countries in the first place, and therefore we should give it back to them. But this theory doesn’t take into account the real reason for the differences between countries—that is, the development of new techniques for growing food, the development of machinery to grow food and to do other things, and the fact that all this machinery requires the concentration of capital. It isn’t the stuff, but the power to make the stuff, that is important. But I realize now that these people were not in science; they didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand technology; they didn’t understand their time.

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.

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’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.

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.

They don’t trust me? The hell with it; they don’t have to pay me. Of course it’s absurd! I know that’s the way the government works; well, screw the government! I feel that human beings should treat human beings like human beings.

I said, “Let’s cook up a dull-sounding title and a dull-sounding professor’s name, and then only the kids who are really interested in physics will bother to come, and those are the ones we want, OK? You don’t have to sell anything.” A few posters appeared on the Irvine campus: Professor Henry Warren from the University of Washington is going to talk about the structure of the proton on May 17th at 3:00 in Room D102.

I had a certain psychological difficulty all the way through this period. You see, I had been brought up by my father against royalty and pomp (he was in the uniforms business, so he knew the difference between a man with a uniform on, and with the uniform off—it’s the same man).

“What is the aspect and character of the Japanese people that made it possible for the Japanese to do that?” I asked. The ambassador answered in a way I like to hear: “I don’t know,” he said. “I might suppose something, but I don’t know if it’s true. The people of Japan believed they had only one way of moving up: to have their children educated more than they were; that it was very important for them to move out of their peasantry to become educated. So there has been a great energy in the family to encourage the children to do well in school, and to be pushed forward. Because of this tendency to learn things all the time, new ideas from the outside would spread through the educational system very easily. Perhaps that is one of the reasons why Japan has advanced so rapidly.”

“Yes,” he said. “I do. He’s not a professional anthropologist or a historian; he’s an amateur. But he certainly knows a lot about it. His name is Richard Feynman.” She nearly died! She’s trying to bring some culture to the physicists, and the only way to do it is to get a physicist!

I think I was getting close to the kind of thing that happens when you begin to fall asleep: There are apparent logical connections, but when you try to remember what made you think of what you’re thinking about, you can’t remember. As a matter of fact, you soon forget what it is that you’re trying to remember.

The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.