How The Fuck Did Feynman Get Here !?I’ve been re-rereading stories about Feynman again. People decry that no such geniuses exist today, they oft seem to decry the fact that no physicists since has developed such a thirst for understanding and beautiful ability to abstract for others.

But the question, I think, lies better on its head:

How the fuck did someone like Richard Feynman ever become a physicist?

It often seems that Feynman’s most impressive skills are perpendicular to anything relevant to physics, mathematics, or even science beyond a very abstract philosophical level.

For example, his approaches to solving complex problems often sound like the kind of thing you’d do before figuring out how to optimally reason using the efficient abstractions provided by mathematics:

”I can’t understand anything in general unless I’m carrying along in my mind a specific example and watching it go. Some people think in the beginning that I’m kind of slow and I don’t understand the problem, because I ask a lot of these “dumb” questions: “Is a cathode plus or minus? Is an an-ion this way, or that way?” But later, when the guy’s in the middle of a bunch of equations, he’ll say something and I’ll say, “Wait a minute! There’s an error! That can’t be right!” The guy looks at his equations, and sure enough, after a while, he finds the mistake and wonders, “How the hell did this guy, who hardly understood at the beginning, find that mistake in the mess of all these equations?” He thinks I’m following the steps mathematically, but that’s not what I’m doing. I have the specific, physical example of what he’s trying to analyze, and I know from instinct and experience the properties of the thing. So when the equation says it should behave so-and-so, and I know that’s the wrong way around, I jump up and say, “Wait! There’s a mistake!”

This approach to problems is impressive, but it’s impressive in the same way that a man doing complex calculations without a computer is. It seems tedious beyond reason for someone able to abstract better.

Mind you, if Feynman was a businessman or even an engineer this would be a rather useful way of thinking and it is the way that the vast majority of “applied” people I know seem to approach dialogues with their more theoretically minded colleagues.

There’s also this interesting sorry, though I’m afraid I can’t be arsed to cite it, where Feynman found a faultily placed valve in this-or-that high-value military plant, by simply not paying attention whilst the structure was being explained to him, then trying to catch up by asking some questions on a schematic. Lo-and-behold in a few seconds of open question-asking the engineers working on it realized they had made a huge mistake.

It also seems that a lot of his time at the famous Manhattan project was concerned with distinctly not physics, and a lot of that wasn’t even computer science but rather…. Learning to lockpick the lockers and desks of higher-ups, trying to bypass the army with clever on-the-fly ciphers exchanging letters with his wife, running in-prompt psychology experiments on world-renowned physicists.

The story of him working at a supercomputer company is also telling: He came in, everyone was kind of confused about what to ask for, somebody mumbled that they didn’t have pens and…. Feynman, by then a world-renowned noble laureate physicist, went and bought pens.

And all of the anecdotes he tells about trying to pick the mind of his colleagues at a meta-level. Thinking about how they think, how do you count, how do you sum, how do you remember, how do you multiply, divide, and factor? You’d often times think that Feynman was much more interested in psychology than physics.

No, no doubt Feynman was a very intelligent man and very good at physics.

Yet given all of his diverging interests, his preference to focus on people and psychology, his (comparative to Nobel-grade physicists) dispreference for difficult mathematics, and his general ADHD, it seems unlikely that he was the best physicist. Indeed, he himself confesses that placement at the Manhattan project (and even the noble prize) came as a rather big surprise and if anything they seem in part owned to his charm and amiability rather than a breakthrough no other man could do.

I could see Feynman being many things in today’s world:

  • A quack sending frantically worded letters to professors or mathematics and physics
  • A psychedelics-driven new age guru
  • Amateur psychologists at the forefront of the replication crises
  • A tech startup founder
  • A genius programmer

Yet I find it very hard to imagine him as a physicist, or in any way connected to modern academia. He’s the kind of person that probably required a lot of slack to participate in that system. He owes his success in part to “raw” intelligence, that is certain, but he was atypical enough that, be him the smartest person in the world, he’d never have been able to navigate a hierarchy without plenty of slack.

Indeed, even back in the early 20th century, it seems rather amazing that someone with such a wide array of interests and from such a “low class” background made it to the position he was in.

So my biggest takeaway from reading Feynman’s biography is that the question I should be asking isn’t:

Why was Feynman so freaking good?

That part flows from having a different way of thinking and wider areas of interest than all of your peers. At that point “being good” happens naturally if you stick in the field long enough.

Thousands of potential Feynmans are born and thousands die every day, the typology that can generate a Feynman, while to be appreciated, is not particularly rare nor alien.

The question that should be asked is:

How the fuck did Feynman get there in the first place!?

It’s precisely the slack in the academic system, and Feynman’s way of exploiting it to become a professor and then a Manhattan project participant, that’s the anomaly we should be looking at. 

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8 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:59 AM

I think your view of what Feynman was like, and what he was good at, may be being distorted by the fact that books like "Surely you're joking..." are written for a general audience and therefore inevitably focus on things other than the physics and mathematics.

A few more concrete remarks:

The "always consider concrete examples" technique seems to me very much the sort of thing that is valuable in doing physics (or mathematics) just as much as in engineering or business.

I bet most of Feynman's time at the Manhattan project was spent doing physics (or in some cases engineering, or even something like programming -- one of his contributions was getting the numerical calculations, done by a big team of people operating mechanical calculators, organized much more efficiently) but what you read about is the lockpicking because it's (1) funnier, (2) easier for mere mortals to appreciate, and (3) not classified to hell and back.

When he was at Thinking Machines, sure, he bought pens, but he also came up with a novel physics-inspired way of thinking about the dataflow in the machines in terms of differential equations that led them to make some design changes that made them more effective.

I am not at all convinced that relative to other top theoretical physicists Feynman had a "dispreference for difficult mathematics". He was good at difficult mathematics. Don't be fooled by the folksy kinda-self-deprecating style of his writing.

I know next to nothing about Feynman, but my first instinct on hearing those kind of stories is that he was probably also pretty amazing at solving equations in particular and mathematics in general in the most boring way.

I thought that even in the quote its emphasised that its not about mathematical approach. Rather having that concrete example means means he has new things introduced grounded very throughly rather than being meaningless detached things. Sure its impressive to find an error from arbitrary rules concerning a meaningless lisp token (even if it is suggestively named), but the route of actually being able to describe meaning and therefore integrate the stuff to your world-model is not a particularly operation heavy route.

The saying of "Your strength as a rationalist is to be more surprised by fiction rather than fact" is not signposting a cumbersome way. Understanding Feymans approach here as such surprise by unconnected arbitrariness seems proper. I would expect that in a cumbersome way one would be able to specify what is wrong but here there is only a general "something is a miss"

To expand on my first comment and gjm's, I would generally distrust the stories that scientists tell about themselves and their discovery process - as I would distrust a general telling how he won a battle due to his bold strategies. Writing about scientists comes with specific tropes, and whimsical outsider genius is too much of a recurring one not to be seen with suspicion.

Feynman, in particular, has a very peculiar place in the scientific mythos, which has probably a grain of truth at its core but should still be viewed critically.

I really need to read more about / by him. The way you describe him, and the aura I've gotten from other stuff I've read about him in the past, he reminds me massively of myself. Dislike of complex math, likely to become a psychedelic guru in an alternative timeline, and all lol.

That said, reading the other comments... maybe not lol!

I think it's too easy to overcorrect towards 'Feynman wasn't that goofy.' And I think a lot of people are doing that here. It's contrarianism for contrarianism's sake. Physics researchers can be very boring. You don't hear stories about many other famous physicists doing weird things like Feynman. Why are people here so willing to disagree that he was unusual? I really think it's just status-seeking behavior to say, "nah that's just a public misconception, real sciencey folks know that Feynman was actually really good at math and wasn't that weird."

And there's a lot of strawmanning as well. Nobody makes the claim that Feynman was spending most of his time goofing around picking locks and asking people weird psych questions. Yet that's the only thing that I see other comments here arguing against.

Eh, I think I came in a bit too strong trying to argue that even if he was 20% goofing around and thinking oddly, that 20% might me more than current academic slack allows.

I did try to clarify that in a comment in the original blog-post but I do feel like I've heard takes of this argument made before.

The biggest update for me are people claiming he actually was a top mathematician in every sense of the word, which might be true and would disprove a big part of my hypothesis, which is that he was a good mathematician, but good in the "top 10k people in the world" sense not in the "top 10 people in the world" sense.

people claiming he actually was a top mathematician in every sense of the word

He did score top 5 in the Putnam in 1939.  Whose competitors would be all undergraduates in the U.S. and Canada.  It was only the second year the competition was offered, and I don't know what fraction of top math students actually took it, nor how much Feynman prepared for it relative to his competitors; nor is math contest skill identical to math skill.  But, all that said, if we count his contemporaries as those within ±10 years of his age, then this would appear to put him in the top 100 on whatever it was that the Putnam tested.

Edit: There is also a claim that Feynman said, in an interview, that someone who graded the 1939 Putnam (Feynman didn't name the competition, but it fits the description) told Feynman "Not only were you one of the five [winners], but the gap between you and the other four was sensational."