Getting a Glimpse of the Genius that was Richard Feynman

March 22, 2010

I have been working my way slowly through “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!,” which is a collection of short stories and musings of the life of Richard Feynman. It is amazing how interesting and intriguing these stories are, which provide a lot of insight into the life of Richard Feynman. I am constantly amazed by how relevant this book is.

For those who are unfamiliar with him, Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist who was involved with numerous projects, which could not be summed up in only a few sentences. Suffice it to say that the man was a brilliant scientist, who had a deep appreciation for learning.

There are a number of incredibly interesting videos on YouTube, where Feynman explains how certain things work or breaks down scientific principals. Many of these are from a BBC documentary named ‘Fun to Imagine.’ Being mechanically inclined, I have always found his explanation of how a train stays on the track to be one of my favorites.

Whats great about these videos, as well as his written works, is that his love for learning and science shine through, much of which is still entirely relevant today.

For instance, in the chapter titled “A Map of the Cat?,” Feynman describes how, during his time at Princeton, he made an effort to explore other areas of science aside from physics. During this time, he took an interest in Biology and began attending a course on advanced biology taught by E. Newton Harvey.

One of his assignments dealt with the electrical impulses that are sent through the nerves, with the research being based on the nerves of a cat. During his presentation, he began drawing the different muscles of the cat to show how the nerves interacted with the muscles, when he came to an interesting realization.

When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles. The other students in the class interrupt me: "We know all that!"

"Oh," I say, "you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology." They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.

This touches on something that is just as relevant today as it was 60 years ago and is something that most modern schools have been slow to embrace.

With the way the Internet works, there is rarely a piece of general information that you can not find in a matter of seconds, providing you know how and where to search for it. However, all to often, the focus is still on memorization, rather than the building of the skills necessary to find the information.

Being able to recite something from memory is great and certainly shows some level of intelligence, but being able to identify what information bears memorization and what information it is better to look up shows a whole different level of understanding.

This is but one of the many gems in his work…

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