We are all impressed by the experts, the famous and the successful…the world leaders and corporate giants; the thespians and writers; the poets and musicians; the scientists, the prodigies, the philanthropists, the spiritual and philosophical gurus… We admire their prowess in their field, look up to their achievements. We choose from among them, our heroes – to emulate and learn from, to design our own goals.
But it is the “Magicians” that captivate us; the rare few in whose case even their brilliant achievement seems to take second place to their humanity, the “magic” of their mind and heart. It is from the magicians that we select our superstars. We do not emulate them. We imbibe some of their magic; a part of them becomes indivisibly embedded in our thoughts and attitude, they power our dreams and ideology.
One of the magicians who has always fascinated me is Richard Feynman.
Feynman was a phenomenal scientist, a physicist, a genius – I admire his achievements of course (though I must admit I don’t understand much of what he worked on – quantum this and particle that… with my background in finance and business, I have always been clueless about what it all really is!). What absolutely captivates me though, is the way he thought – the exuberant curiosity; the humor and fun he saw in discovering the universe, and ourselves. He captures it in a very evocative sentence, “I…a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe.”
There is much Feynman said and wrote; much I have read and heard that impresses me. There are however a few things that really created the magic for me:
Science is Imagination ! Feynman quietly refuted the view that Science is “dry” and “serious”- said it is all about the fun of imagining. He talked about a scientist needing a much larger power of imagination than any artist. He argued that science created a deeper appreciation of beauty because the questions that it raises add excitement, mystery and greater awe. He thought that science and religion are actually not separate; they are the 2 pillars that together create the best society; bring out the best in humanity —- the humility of intellect and the humility of spirit.
I think he made science so much larger in what it covers – expanded it to philosophy, to our wish to understand patterns, to impact the world and fathom all the ways it impacts us.
The Best Explanation is One you can “See” His explanations and musing on physical theory can be such fun; like “seeing” the most complex concepts in practical terms. He always spoke in visuals – and it’s how I think.
He talks about “jiggling atoms” of water that get more jiggly as they are heated, and then jiggle the atoms of the cup the are in. The heat we feel in touching the cup is the intensified jiggle hitting the atoms in our hand. He then goes on to apply the same jiggly concept of heat to why hitting a nail can make it hot. How too much “jiggle” can make the atoms in water spring apart as they collide with each other, and so gas/steam happens. And how, quieter atoms stack up and lie down close in the cold, to form the more compact solid/ice. He speaks of fire as the completion of the chain of heat that started when the sun’s heat was captured by the tree. He describes motion, friction and inertia as the feeling he had when he was a kid pulling up a toy wagon on the hillside behind his house.
Think like a Martian Feynman said that the best way to understand anything was to move beyond the commonly accepted parameters – “Question every aspect. Behave as if you are seeing it for the first time”. And how amazing was his application of this simple guideline:
If flowers are brightly colored to attract insects, it means that insects can see color; does it mean that they can appreciate aesthetics? Can other animals also appreciate beauty or is it just instinct that attracts them to some colors and scents?
He says the names are only identifiers, common words that we use to set reference in conversation. But knowing the name for something doesn’t mean that you have knowledge. Knowing the formula for pi means nothing, knowing the name of a bird does not mean anything — knowledge comes only with the understanding of the substance of anything, what drives it. Knowledge is when you can say the entire story – the what, how, why… in terms anyone can understand. Knowledge is the kid taking the toy car apart to see how it works — not being satisfied with the theory that “energy” is making it move.
We are not all the Same He talks about how we all think differently – not in our views only, but in the very mechanics of thinking. As an illustration, he talks about how he reads or counts by saying it in his mind – which makes it difficult for him to read if there is music playing, makes him lose count if he has to talk. His friend reads and counts by visualizing the words and numbers, by seeing it in pictures in his mind; the friend is not distracted by music or talking. This basic difference makes communication such a challenge – integration and translation issues! The same applies for differences in ability and aptitude.
Even more impressive than the things Feynman says, is the way he says it. The difference is in his attitude. The difference is in his humor and his approachable, common man quality. The difference is in the beauty and sheer elegance of simplicity in his teachings and writings. The difference is in the man who was a genius …and yet, never stopped wanting to learn.
Feynman’s approach to thought and learning is incredible in its impact. It is magic! Will you let in some of his magic into your life?