Saturday, April 30, 2016

"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!"

Though I'm ill-versed in physics, not having studied it since high school (1966-1967), I found this book by Richard Feynman extremely enjoyable to read. I've had a little exposure to physics through my interest in astronomy and geology, but what is really entertaining about Feynman is his wide range of interests and his honesty. The book is a series of long anecdotes that Feynman dictated to a friend and includes several of the major episodes of his life. There is also a commencement speech that he gave at Caltech. He refers to his work as a theoretical physicist throughout the book, but is light on technical details. Feynman's unique personality comes through clearly.

The title refers to one of his most memorable and representative episodes. He was a down-to-earth, unpretentious physics student who had just graduated from M.I.T., which in those days wasn't as competitive as it is now, and had ventured completely out of his element when he moved to Princeton to pursue his Ph.D. Princeton was pretentiously modeled after Oxford and Cambridge, complete with American interpretations of English affectations:

So the very afternoon I arrived in Princeton I'm going to the dean's tea, and I didn't even know what a "tea" was, or why! I had no social abilities whatsoever; I had no experience with this sort of thing. 

So I come up to the door, and there's Dean Eisenhart, greeting the new students. "Oh, you're Mr. Feynman," he says. "We're glad to have you." So that helped a little, because he recognized me, somehow.

I go through the door, and there are some ladies, and some girls, too. It's all very formal and I'm thinking about where to sit down and should I sit next to this girl, or not, and how should I behave, when I hear a voice behind me.

"Would you like cream or lemon in your tea, Mr. Feynman?" It's Mrs. Eisenhart, pouring tea.

"I'll have both, thank you," I say, still looking for where I'm going to sit, when suddenly I hear, "Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh. Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman."

Joking? Joking? What the hell did I say? Then I realized what I had done. So that was my first experience with this tea business.    

What stands out about Feynman is his extraordinary accomplishments in quantum physics coupled with his frankness and plebeian interests. He grew up in an ordinary neighborhood in Far Rockaway, Queens, and was encouraged by his father from an early age to figure out how things work and think for himself. He was naturally inquisitive and developed the habit of thinking things through in his own terms, which were not necessarily the same ones that were taught in school. This helped him to excel in math and science, and by the time he was in his late twenties he was well-known in the physics world from his graduate work at Princeton and his participation in the Manhattan Project. Major universities went into bidding wars to hire him; he started at Cornell but later moved to Caltech, where he remained for the rest of his career.

Feynman may have been a little socially awkward, but he was fairly gregarious and enjoyed people very much. However, he detested pomposity and pretension and quickly became impatient with sloppy thinking from anyone. This put him at odds with many academics, particularly those in the humanities; he describes the people in the philosophy department at Cornell as "particularly inane." His dislike of sloppy thinking came to a head in the early 1950's, when he was invited to an interdisciplinary conference in New York whose topic was "the ethics of inequality." He became outraged by some of the ridiculous statements made by other participants:

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 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."

Then I went over the next sentence, and I realized that I could translate that one also. Then it became kind of an empty business: "Sometimes people read; sometimes people listen to the radio," and so on, but written in such a fancy way that I couldn't understand it at first, and when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it.

This side of Feynman means a lot to me, because it reinforces what I've thought for years, and right up to the present I become disturbed by the nonsense writing that I encounter everywhere. In fact the only way that I've found to solve this problem for myself has been to scrupulously limit my reading to carefully selected material: randomly foraging on the Internet – even at the so-called high-end intellectual websites – was starting to drive me nuts.

Feynman led a full life, was always curious and loved to pursue pretty women. He met women in bars and restaurants from Buffalo to Las Vegas to the Sunset Strip. He became a regular at a topless restaurant near Caltech, where he would work, meet people and sketch the dancers. In his spare time he tried all kinds of hobbies. While in Brazil he learned Portuguese and samba music. While in Japan he attempted to learn Japanese. He became interested in drawing and painting and actually did some good amateur work under the name of Ofey. He also became a proficient drummer and performed in a group called "The Three Quarks." Another time he ad-libbed with a cowbell for a rock group in Vancouver, and the bandleader said "Geez! Who was that guy who came down and played on that cowbell! He can really knock out a rhythm on that thing!" Feynman got around, and he somehow became a participant in John Lilly's experiments in sensory deprivation tanks. In his later years he occasionally became somewhat reluctantly involved with government affairs. As always, he was outspoken about incompetence wherever he saw it, whether in the California school textbook selection process or in NASA.

Feynman is also a case study in intelligence: one of his biographies, which I haven't read, is titled Genius. The part of his intelligence that I can identify with is his extreme intellectual independence, but it was his scientific accomplishments, which put him in the ranks of the top twentieth century physicists, that made him famous. You might call him a patron saint of this blog, because he was all about doubting experts throughout his life. His intelligence took on a practical character, which may have had to do with the fact that he grew up during the Depression. He never read widely beyond technical literature and perhaps lacked confidence in his writing skills: why would he have dictated his memoirs to someone rather than write them himself? M.I.T. was of little help in this regard, because they allowed an astronomy class to partially fulfill his humanities requirement for graduation. As to his native intelligence, probably his Ashkenazi genetic and cultural heritage played a role there. Even so, in light of my comments about AI, Feynman himself is an example of how human mental capacities are becoming obsolete. One of his strongest skills was the use of approximations and shortcuts to make complex mathematical calculations, and that was a critical advantage during his early years as a physicist, when electronic calculators didn't exist and mechanical calculators were crude and unreliable by current standards. It isn't hard to project into the future and imagine the mental apparatus of Feynman or anyone else being eclipsed by AI at some point. But that doesn't detract at all from Feynman the man, who certainly would have been an interesting person to know.

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