On Feynman and Us
Perhaps a thing is simple if you can describe it fully in several different ways without immediately knowing that you are describing the same thing.
Richard Feynman, Nobel Lecture, December 11, 1965
If you’ve ever listened to a Richard Feynman lecture or read his books, you’ll understand why I like to think that his greatest gift (beyond all that Nobel-worthy work in QED) was his ability to make the seemingly inconceivably complex so elegantly simple. [If you haven’t, I’ve embedded a fun 7-minute Feynman video below.] There are two important realities embedded here: one, that Feynman, regardless of his particular field, possessed the ability to understand and articulate the hierarchies and connectivities within that field such that he could render them simply and clearly. Two, and even more importantly, Feynman wasn’t afraid to make the opaque clear. He wasn’t threatened by making everything he knew as transparent and accessible as he possibly could.
Interestingly, Feynman lived in an era when intellectual gates, both literal and figurative, stood so firmly in place that he was as “vetted” as an intellect could be. He went to MIT, post grad at Princeton, and taught at CIT. He was the cream of the intellectual crop, but he displayed no need to be unnecessarily pompous or self-protective. Richard Feynman talked about quantum electrodynamics with as much ease and clarity as if he were explaining how to make coffee. His genius lay in his ability to deftly show how this differs from that, to zero in on the crux of an idea, to articulate to his audience why these most complicated theories were both relevant to each other and to the world at large. The world didn’t marvel at Richard Feynman because he rattled off theories and calculations and equations in a “you-could-never-understand-this” pseudo-intellectual maelstrom—because he never did.
The world marveled at Feynman because of his intellectual elegance and simplicity.
Feynman made sure people got it.
While you may not argue that your 12th grade Physics lab was one of the more creatively inspiring classes of your academic experience, I’d argue that the imagination required of the advanced Physicist parallels that of Yo-Yo Ma or Damien Hirst.
Physicists have to be kind of out there, piecing together those ideas and objects that may seem most incongruent at first sniff. Physicists need to be a little daring, a little nuts. For heaven’s sake, many of them believe the universe has 11 dimensions.
And still, Feynman was able to make sure people got it.
We are living in times where the simplicity that Feynman brought to explaining Physics to the masses has never been more necessary for the development and dissemination of new ideologies and technologies. These days, ingenuity and innovation haunt our everyday lives. Was the way you drove to work the Tuesday after someone discovered the quark radically altered (if you happened to drive to work in 1968)? Likely not. However, technology, new ideas, new politics, and global competition and collaboration just may well change the way you drive to work next Tuesday— the method of transportation, the fuel you use, how you occupy your time en route, or even if you leave your home to work at all.
This sort of rapid evolution of technology, systems, and efficiencies ranging from technology to political policy is the hallmark of 21st century life. Never has it been more important that each of us, not just Nobel contenders, is equipped with the ability to inventively connect ideas, understand systems of new information, and synthesize these new systems with our existing body of understanding. The high engagement environment necessitated by rampant ingenuity is not optional.
...which means we have to think harder than we ever have and subsequently disseminate more articulately than ever before.
We cannot keep new ideas to ourselves; moreover, the new idea incompetently expressed cannot flourish.
We must begin to teach careful thinking and articulation.