Getting Intimate with an Idea – Qualities of the ‘Great Explainer’ Part 1


I would like to introduce to those of you who have not yet had the pleasure to know him, a man that taught me what science was all about, how exciting it could be, the enormous good it could do, and the care with which it must be practiced and communicated. I’ve never met him although I wish I had. I wish I could have gone on walks with him to hear him explain to me, in person and in his distinctive, no-nonsense, yet animated voice, how he went about uncovering the workings of nature. I would listen but all the while secretly harbour the desire that one day I would have learned and experimented enough too to hold a conversation with him about nature and perhaps tell him something new about her. Or even to have attended one of his always overcrowded lectures on physics, some of which have been transcribed, printed and bound by his inspired students, into a series of unassuming red books that still remain one of the most popular on physics today. Mortality, however, has ensured that all I have are some of these books and grainy YouTube videos divided into 10 or so parts. And even then, he has changed my life. His name is Richard P. Feynman.

feynman_postcard

He was born in 1918 and died in 1988, and was remembered fondly in his obituary in the New York Times as ‘arguably the most brilliant, iconoclastic and influential of the post-war generation of theoretical physicists’. As another put it: ‘he was widely known for his insatiable curiosity, gentle wit, brilliant mind and playful temperament’. Compelling as these qualities of a true free spirit had inevitably made him to me, it was his extraordinary honesty in his thoughts and actions that deserve special mention in winning my ultimate respect and I’d like to expand upon this later. Among many other accomplishments, Feynman won the 1965 Nobel Prize in Physics for his highly innovative contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics.

He was also, as they say, never one to suffer fools gladly, with a great disdain for seemingly arbitrary rituals, especially those unquestioned, and utterly unmerciful towards pretension and pomposity. ‘Ever playful and unintimidated by authority’, he would not be afraid to disagree with famous heavyweights like Neils Bohr if there was a flaw in their thinking regarding physics. It was because of this that Bohr often discussed his ideas with the young Feynman personally – confident that Feynman would not be afraid to argue with him if his ideas were found wanting. He lived his life as a proponent of a personal meritocracy.

Now at this juncture you may ask, well that is all well and good and he sounds like a fine man, although what of it if not only admiration from an ebullient fan? I am confident I am not alone in acknowledging his strong influence on my views of science, despite being a neuroscientist-in-training rather than a physicist, since his legacy goes beyond mere disciplinary boundaries. Instead it encompasses the spirit of all the sciences. To me Feynman is the embodiment of science as it should be done. Coincidentally, the same qualities that made him a scientist par excellence I believe also made him a great science communicator – in fact he is also known as ‘the great explainer’ for his engaging analogies and stories to explain difficult concepts.

td-feynman-thumb

feynman_richard_b15So what were those qualities specifically that earned him the epithet of ‘the great explainer’? In reflecting upon this, I drew up a list that tries to tease them out and I came up with 3 – 4. Today, because I don’t need sleep, we will be looking at 1 characteristic – that of having: an intimate knowledge and understanding of the content to be conveyed.

1) Feynman had an excellent grasp and understanding of whatever concept he taught – its subtleties and real-world applications. This partly stems from a habit his father had impressed upon him in his childhood of always attempting to translate abstract factual ideas into lively and relatable real-world examples. Feynman recalls one occasion when he was reading the encyclopedia with his dad about the size of a brontosaurus. His dad, in his characteristic way, used their newly acquired fact and began: ‘Well, ok so if the brontosaurus is this tall, that would mean that if it stood in the front of our house, its head would be long enough to go into the window of the top floor’ and so on.  Isolated and potentially mundane facts are translated into something that is still factual but far more fascinating, memorable, and useful.

His thorough understanding of science also came from rigorously testing ideas for himself before he believed in them and often he would try to rediscover the concept from first principles.  He was considered a highly original thinker precisely because in the process of rediscovering scientific laws in his youth, he would sometimes invent his own mathematical notation when he found the established ones to be inefficient.

In essentially earning his in-depth understanding of an idea, just as a builder of house would, after several months of construction, know its ins and outs, Feynman could often see the same idea from multiple nuanced perspectives and therefore this ability gave him multiple hooks to engage a wider-range of students than if he had relied on only one perspective.

His father had also helped him learn to habitually ‘take the world from another point of view’ with problems he would pose to his son to contemplate – in this example, what happens within the mind as you fall asleep?

‘Suppose some Martians were to come down to earth, and Martians never slept, but instead were perpectually active. Suppose they didn’t have this crazy phenomenon that we have, called sleep. So they ask you a question: ‘How does it feel to go to sleep? What happens when you go to sleep? Do your thoughts suddenly stop or do they move less aanndd lleeessss rraaaaapppppiidddddlllllllllyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? How does the mind actually turn off?’

RFeynman

You get the sense that Feynman learned to see ideas as tangible entities that he could put in his hand and play around with, like a curious child having fun with toy blocks, observing all the faces, edges, and texture and seeing what would happen if he tried to break it or to be more in keeping with our baby analogy, eat it.

As future science communicators in training, while we might not have to reconstruct an idea from first principles (though it’ll help), we can at least strive to ensure we have a firm understanding of whatever it is we are trying to convey from multiple perspectives – its associated details, nuances, and relatable applications.

We may also take pointers from one other physicist, relatively small-time:

‘If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough’ – Einstein

I’ll wrap up this first blog with this first characteristic and finish the rest in the next! I apologise for it being long, but hopefully my enthusiasm for Feynman will go some little way in providing  some food for thought :)

P.S. For an engrossing introduction to Feynman via an interview for a program entitled ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’ check it out here at : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srSbAazoOr8&feature=search

3 Comments

  1. jeuann
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink

    Enjoyed this post, Charles. Thanks for the intro.

  2. Daniel
    Posted August 25, 2010 at 1:00 pm | Permalink

    He used to play the bongos like a pro, too!

  3. Jenny Martin
    Posted August 28, 2010 at 3:54 pm | Permalink

    Fabulous post Charles, I also enjoyed in immensely. Thanks for remedying the fact that I had never come across Fehnman before. Sounds like I have been missing out on a lot. Looking forward to the next post….