Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman
By James Gleick
Vintage, 1993

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) was one of the most respected physicists and teachers of the twentieth century. He was also unorthodox, personally and professionally. I’m most interested in the latter, especially in how he used notes in his work.

Like many scientists, Feynman was drawn to puzzles, and he approached problems in physics as though they were puzzles to be solved. Unlike many other scientists of his caliber, he preferred tackling such problems from first principles. This approach sometimes led to waste but also yielded novel takes on long-standing challenges. He was driven by a relentless — yet focused — curiosity:

For him knowledge did not describe; it acted and accomplished. Unlike many of his colleagues, educated scientists in a cultivated European tradition, Feynman did not look at paintings, did not listen to music, did not read books, even scientific books. He refused to let other scientists explain anything to him in detail, often to their immense frustration. He learned anyway. He pursued knowledge without prejudice.

Math came easily. Early on, he also demonstrated scientific inclinations, taking apart and repairing radios in his small town. He noted how the innards of a radio were a sort of diagram of the radio — a case of the map being the territory. (I was reminded of Norbert Wiener’s quote: “The best material model of a cat is another, or preferably the same, cat.”)

Feynman approached problems kinesthetically — often in pictures, but also with his body. And he worked out problems in notebooks. The book references these notebooks and the roles they played in his work. Beyond the obvious — notes to self: marking paper, reflecting on the marks, generating additional notes, etc. — there’s a fascinating reference to his use of a notebook as a collaboration device.

During the spring semester of 1936, Feynman and his classmate T. A. Welton embarked on a self-study program in quantum theory. (MIT didn’t yet offer a course on the subject.) At the end of the semester, they decided to continue their shared study remotely from their homes in Far Rockaway, NY, and Saratoga Springs, NY, respectively.

They did so by mailing a notebook back and forth throughout the summer. One student would write an equation, make comments and suggestions, further the work, etc., and then he would mail it to the other who’d do the same. It’s worth noting not just the use of the notebook but the effort at self-driven education.

The book notes a second fascinating use for notes. In preparing for his graduate oral examination,

[Feynman] chose not to study the outlines of known physics. Instead he went up to MIT, where he could be alone, and opened a fresh notebook. On the title page he wrote: Notebook Of Things I Don’t Know About. For the first but not the last time he reorganized his knowledge. He worked for weeks at disassembling each branch of physics, oiling the parts, and putting them back together, looking all the while for the raw edges and inconsistencies. He tried to find the essential kernels of each subject. When he was done he had a notebook of which he was especially proud.

Again, the notion of first principles — here, embodied in a formal structure. I’ve had the pleasure of cracking open many new notebooks but never looking to outline everything there is to know about my discipline — much less to think through each item from scratch. (It sounds like a worthwhile goal, if time-consuming; a downside of avoiding giants’ shoulders.)

Another memorable lesson from the book: while working on the Manhattan Project, Feynman explored the length of the fence around Los Alamos. He’d report holes in the fence and would be annoyed when guards didn’t show enthusiasm. Feynman didn’t know that the holes allowed people from local tribes to come to see cheap movies at the base, a “semiofficial sanction” from the laboratory’s administrators. It’s a for-real example of Chesterton’s fence. (Ironically, in reverse: here the fence needed mending, not tearing down.)

Yet another lesson: When two of the world’s leading physics organizations were competing to hire him, he was anxious about failing to live up to their expectations. For all his fame and brilliance, Feynman, too, suffered from impostor’s syndrome.

To make progress, physicists need more than abstractions:

Feynman said to [his colleague Freeman ]Dyson, and Dyson agreed, that Einstein’s great work had sprung from physical intuition and that when Einstein stopped creating it was because “he stopped thinking in concrete physical images and became a manipulator of equations.”

This is true beyond physics; things must be made tangible, relatable. The book covers the physicists’ search for new diagramming techniques, metaphors, analogies, and labels to help them talk about the esoteric and obtuse concepts they developed. A good analogy, diagram, or name allows us to manipulate and understand complex concepts.

A final note-related anecdote: later in his life, Feynman worked with MIT historian Charles Wiener on an examination of Feynman’s interviews. During an exchange with Wiener, Feynman explained the role of his notes:

He began dating his scientific notes as he worked, something he had never done before. Weiner once remarked casually that his new parton notes represented “a record of the day-to-day work,” and Feynman reacted sharply. “I actually did the work on the paper,” he said. “Well,” Weiner said, “the work was done in your head, but the record of it is still here.” “No, it’s not a record, not really. It’s working. You have to work on paper, and this is the paper. Okay?”

I’ve referenced this conversation (which I first saw in Andy Clark’s Supersizing the Mind) when introducing the idea of embodied cognition to students. It’s a critical distinction: thinking doesn’t happen in the meat computer between our shoulders and then gets splurted onto the page through the hand. Instead, thinking occurs in a system that includes the brain, nervous system, senses, pen, paper, environment, etc. The mind is broader than we expect.

Feynman’s mind was broader than most. It was inspiring to read about how it worked and the impact it had on the world. Curiosity + questioning authority + hard work — at a minimum, it’ll yield an interesting life.

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

— Richard Feynman

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