Search Results for: richard feynman

Richard Feynman: Eccentric Genius and the “Adventures of a Curious Character” [What I’ve Been Reading]

This year, I’ve been reading many biographies of the great physicist Richard Feynman (1918–1988.)

A Nobel laureate, Feynman’s scientific curiosity knew no bounds. His academic life, acuity, life-philosophy, and ability to communicate science are inspirational to anyone pursuing his/her own life’s fulfillment.

In addition to his many scientific achievements, Feynman was known for his playfulness, varied interests and hobbies, and—perhaps most notably—his many eccentricities.

  • 'Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!' by Richard Feynman, Ralph Leighton (ISBN 0393316041) In a divorce complaint, Feynman’s second wife Mary Louise Bell complained, “He begins working calculus problems in his head as soon as he awakens. He did calculus while driving in his car, while sitting in the living room, and while lying in bed at night.”
  • Feynman had the reputation of being a ladies’ man and offers many seduction techniques in his memoirs. His bestselling biography “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!” devotes many pages to the art of picking up girls in Las Vegas.
  • In “Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman”, biographer James Gleick recalls Feynman’s tenure at Cornell: “There were entanglements with women: Feynman pursued them and dropped them, or tried to, with increasingly public frustration—so it seemed even to undergraduates, who knew him as the least professorial of professors, likely to be found beating a rhythm on a dormitory bench or lying supine and greasy beneath his Oldsmobile. He had never settled into any house or apartment. One year he lived as faculty guest in a student residence. Often he would stay nights or weeks with married friends until these arrangements became sexually volatile.”
  • 'Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman' by James Gleick (ISBN 0679747044) While a Professor at Caltech, Feynman would frequent a topless bar for a quiet office away from office. There, he used to work on scientific problems by sketching or writing physics equations on paper placemats and napkins. When local authorities shut down the topless bar, most patrons refused to testify in favor of the bar fearing that their families would learn about their visits. But not Feynman: he testified in favor of the bar by stating it was a public need frequented by craftsmen, technicians, engineers, common workers, and “a physics professor.”
  • When physicist Ernico Fermi died in 1954, the University of Chicago offered an astronomical salary (“a tremendous amount of money, three or four times what I was making”) to entice Feynman to back-fill Fermi’s position. Feynman responded, “After reading the salary, I’ve decided that I must refuse. The reason I have to refuse a salary like that is I would be able to do what I’ve always wanted to do—get a wonderful mistress, put her up in an apartment, buy her nice things…With the salary you have offered, I could actually do that, and I know what would happen to me. I’d worry about her, what she’s doing; I’d get into arguments when I come home, and so on. All this bother would make me uncomfortable and unhappy. I wouldn’t be able to do physics well, and it would be a big mess! What I’ve always wanted to do would be bad for me, so I’ve decided that I can’t accept your offer.”

Richard Feynman with a Princess of Denmark at the 1965 Nobel Banquet

  • When conferred a Nobel Prize in 1965, Feynman sat at a table with a Princess of Denmark at the Nobel Banquet. During their small talk, Feynman introduced himself as the winner of the Nobel Prize in Physics. The Princess remarked, “Oh. Well, nobody knows anything about that, so I guess we can’t talk about it.” Feynman was long-winded when he retorted, “On the contrary, it’s because somebody knows something about it that we can’t talk about physics. It’s the things that nobody knows anything about that we can discuss. We can talk about the weather; we can talk about social problems; we can talk about psychology; we can talk about international finance–gold transfers we can’t talk about, because those are understood–so it’s the subject that nobody knows anything about that we can all talk about!” Feynman later remembered that the Princess was flustered with his reply and recalled, “There’s a way of forming ice on the surface of the face, and she did it!”

For many more humorous anecdotes about Richard Feynman and the “Adventures of a Curious Character,” I recommend his extremely entertaining biographies:

Avoid Mundane Tasks Like Richard Feynman

In “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out,” physicist Richard Feynman shares his thoughts and feelings about life, career, curiosity, scientific discovery, life-philosophy, and everything else.

In one essay, based on a 1981 interview for the BBC series Horizon (a video that went viral on YouTube,) Feynman shares his technique of “active irresponsibility” i.e. feigning irresponsibility to avoid mundane work in order to dedicate himself to productive work:

'The Pleasure of Finding Things Out' by Richard Feynman (ISBN 0465023959) To do the kind of real good physics work, you do need absolutely solid lengths of time. When you’re putting ideas together which are vague and hard to remember … it needs a lot of concentration—solid time to think. If you’ve got a job administrating anything, say, then you don’t have the solid time. So I have invented another myth for myself—that I’m irresponsible. “I am actively irresponsible,” I tell everybody. “I don’t do anything.” If anybody asks me to be on a committee to take care of admissions … “No! I’m irresponsible. … I don’t give a damn about the students!” Of course I give a damn about the students, but I know that somebody else’ll do it! … because I like to do physics, and I want to see if I can still do it. I am selfish, okay? I want to do my physics.

Idea for Impact: Avoid Mundane Tasks

Delegate, defer, or avoid the ordinary and mundane elements of work that your work-life imposes upon you. These don’t contribute directly to your long-term goals and aspirations.

Often, the consequences of saying ‘no’ to things you don’t want to do aren’t as bad as you may fear.

For more on investing your time where your priorities are, read my “World’s Shortest Course on Time Management.” Refer also to my articles on time logging and time analysis for a methodical approach to find how you’re currently spending (or wasting) your time.

The Three Dreadful Stumbling Blocks to Time Management

The Three Dreadful Stumbling Blocks to Time Management Ineffective time management is characterized by folks having too many things they need to do (and just a few they must do,) but not enough time for everything they want to do. The key to time management, therefore, is to identify your needs and wants in terms of their importance and match them with the time and resources available.

If your time-management efforts are not getting you the results you envision, you need to pay attention to three hurdles that can get you derailed easily.

  1. The foremost obstacle to time management is a lack of practical awareness of your job duties, as well as the extent of your authority and responsibility. Your efficiency could be acutely hindered by doing the wrong tasks—those that are relatively unimportant or not even part of your job description. You could also not be using the skills or time of others, perhaps not recognizing that you have the authority to do so.
  2. An associated obstacle to effective time management is your failure to prioritize tasks. You may not be able to prioritize because either you’re unaware of your job duties, or you don’t know how to set priorities. As stated by the Pareto Principle, you could be spending 80% of your time on tasks that account for a mere 20% of the total job results. As a result, you could be working on the trivial and the routine, but not the important. In other words, you could be working on the “can do” and not the “must do.”
  3. Equally important, your time management-plans often go off the rails because of “time thieves”—meetings, impromptu visitors, avoidable reports, telephone calls, delays, canceled engagements, redundant rules and regulations, and other claptrap.

Idea for Impact: Develop a high level of awareness in the areas discussed above. Use my three-part technique (time logging, time analyzing, and time budgeting) to control time, conserve time, and make time. Additionally, learn to farm more work out—delegating not only frees up precious time, but also helps develop your employees’ abilities, as well as your own. Try not to say ‘yes’ to too many things and avoid taking on too much.

Inspirational Quotations #701

For the world is in a bad state, but everything will become still worse unless each of us does his best.
Viktor Frankl

Trouble shared is trouble halved.
Dorothy L. Sayers

A good conversationalist is not one who remembers what was said, but says what someone wants to remember.
John Mason Brown

The most precious gift we can offer others is our presence. When mindfulness embraces those we love, they will bloom like flowers.
Thich Nhat Hanh

What I cannot create, I do not understand.
Richard Feynman

Sometimes the best deals are the ones you don’t make.
Bill Veeck

As long as the world shall last there will be wrongs, and if no man objected and no man rebelled, those wrongs would last forever.
Clarence Darrow

Love has a way of finding you when you stop seeking it and start being it.
Mastin Kipp

A traveler without observation is a bird without wings.
Sa’Di (Musharrif Od-Din Muslih Od-Din)

It is inevitable that some defeat will enter even the most victorious life. The human spirit is never finished when it is defeated… it is finished when it surrenders.
Ben Stein

In all your gettings, get wisdom.
Anonymous

Appreciative words are the most powerful force for good on earth!
George W. Crane

Bullets cannot be recalled. They cannot be uninvented. But they can be taken out of the gun.
Martin Amis

What a grand thing it is to be clever and have common sense.
Terence

There is no easy walk to freedom anywhere, and many of us will have to pass through the valley of the shadow of death again and again before we reach the mountaintop of our desires.
Nelson Mandela

He who is aware of his folly is wise.
Yiddish Proverb

To be a critic is easier than to be an author.
Hebrew Proverb

You will get all you want in life, if you help enough other people get what they want.
Zig Ziglar

Confidence is contagious. So is lack of confidence.
Vince Lombardi

A celebrity is a person who works hard all his life to become well known, then wears dark glasses to avoid being recognized.
Fred Allen

Inspirational Quotations #699

When you think you can nail someone with your argument, take a breath & see if you can phrase it as a face-saving question.
Marty Nemko

Self-understanding, like happiness, is never fully achieved. It’s an on-going pursuit and sometimes excessive explicit focus hurts the cause.
Ben Casnocha

He who wants a rose must respect the thorn.
Persian Proverb

Is any man free except the one who can pass his life as he pleases?
Persius

Philosophy of science is about as useful to scientists as ornithology is to birds.
Richard Feynman

If we divine a discrepancy between a man’s words and his character, the whole impression of him becomes broken and painful; he revolts the imagination by his lack of unity, and even the good in him is hardly accepted.
Charles Cooley

The laughter of girls is, and ever was, among the delightful sounds of earth.
Thomas de Quincey

Where your heart is, there your heart be.
The Holy Bible

The desire for more and more wealth is dangerous. Cultivate the good sense to give up your desires. Wealth is the result of past deeds. Therefore be content with what you have.
Adi Shankaracharya

Look before you leap.
Common Proverb

The rich add riches to riches; the poor add years to years.
Chinese Proverb

Perfect happiness is the absence of striving for happiness.
Zhuangzi

The difference between a successful person and others is not a lack of strength, not a lack of knowledge, but rather a lack of will.
Vince Lombardi

Every man who has become great owes his achievement to incessant toil.
Mokshagundam Visvesvarayya

Suffering cheerfully endured, ceases to be|suffering and is transmuted into an ineffable joy.
Mohandas K. Gandhi

By correcting our mistakes, we get wisdom. By defending our faults, we betray an unsound mind.
Buddhist Teaching

The tests of life are not meant to break you, but to make you.
Norman Vincent Peale

We never make a decision. When the time is right, the decision makes itself.
Byron Katie

The true battlefield is within.
Mohandas K. Gandhi

Inspirational Quotations #694

Everybody exists. It is only the few who live.|To live, you should have an ideal.
Swami Chinmayananda

Intelligent people have a remarkable ability to rationalize irrational actions, to re-tell history to fit their preferred, comfortable narrative.
Ben Casnocha

If you yourself are at peace, then there is at least some peace in the world.
Thomas Merton

When playing Russian roulette the fact that the first shot got off safely is little comfort for the next.
Richard Feynman

Character consists of what you do on the third and fourth tries.
James A. Michener

If you make listening and observation your occupation you will gain much more than you can by talk.
Robert Baden-Powell, 1st Baron Baden-Powell

The more of wisdom we know, the more we may earn. That man who seeks to learn more of his craft shall be richly rewarded.
George Samuel Clason

If you have a strong mind,|and plant in it a firm resolve,|you can change your destiny.
Unknown

Providence conceals itself in the details of human affairs, but becomes unveiled in the generalities of history.
Alphonse de Lamartine

Brood less, smile more and serve all.
Swami Chinmayananda

Unless I accept my faults, I will most certainly doubt my virtues.
Hugh Prather

Marriage is a coming together for better or for worse, hopefully enduring, and intimate to the degree of being sacred.
William O. Douglas

Humanity’s greatest advances are not in its discoveries — but in how those discoveries are applied to reduce inequity.
Bill Gates

The secret of concentration is the secret of self-discovery. You reach inside yourself to discover your personal resources, and what it takes to match them to the challenge.
Arnold Palmer

To give love is true freedom; to demand love is pure slavery.
Swami Chinmayananda

You are successful and creative only when you see an opportunity in every difficulty.
Swami Chinmayananda

The exception proves the rule.
Common Proverb

Fear must be entirely banished. The purified soul will fear nothing.
Plotinus

Inspirational Quotations #687

Misery is a communicable disease.
Martha Graham

He that lives long suffers much.
Common Proverb

We are rich only through what we give; and poor only through what we refuse and keep.
Sophie Swetchine

Where at all ethically possible, we must give others hope. Without it, a person figuratively or even literally dies.
Marty Nemko

The minute a person whose word means a great deal to others dare to take the open-hearted and courageous way, many others follow.
Marian Anderson

A great deal more is known than has been proved.
Richard Feynman

Yes, it’s better to suspend judgment rather than embrace error. But agnostic, neutral thinkers have little to say and less to teach.
Ben Casnocha

Gratitude and treachery are merely the two extremities of the same procession. You have seen all of it that is worth staying for when the band and the gaudy officials have gone by.
Mark Twain

Never mind your happiness; do your duty.
Will Durant

It is a mistake to think that moving fast is the same as actually going somewhere.
Steve Goodier

In this age of specialization men who thoroughly know one field are often incompetent to discuss another.
Richard Feynman

A happy life consists not in the absence, but in the mastery of hardships.
Helen Keller

True kindness presupposes the faculty of imagining as one’s own the suffering and joys of others.
Andre Gide

Do not stand in a place of danger trusting in miracles.
Arabic Proverb

The milk fed to a snake only increases its venom. Similarly, the advice given to a fool leads to aggravation and not peace.
Hitopadesha

The hardest type of criticism to take is about self-perceived strengths. Yet this is the most important to hear.
Ben Casnocha

The world does not need tourists who ride by in a bus clucking their tongues. The world as it is needs those who will love it enough to change it, with what they have, where they are.
Robert Fulghum

Inspirational Quotations #645

I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little bit, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go on to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer…. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in the mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me.
Richard Feynman

The man who does not work for the love of work but only for money is not likely to make money nor to find much fun in life.
Charles M. Schwab

You might well remember that nothing can bring you success but yourself.
Napoleon Hill

Read carefully anything that requires your signature. Remember the big print giveth and the small print taketh away.
H. Jackson Brown, Jr.

It is not the criminal things that are hardest to confess, but the ridiculous and the shameful.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau

To be tested is good. The challenged life may be the best therapist.
Gail Sheehy

Either move or be moved.
Colin Powell

Nobody got anywhere in the world by simply being content.
Louis L’amour

The worst is not so long as we can say, “This is the worst”.
William Shakespeare

Self-Assessment Quiz: Are You A Difficult Boss?

Self-Assessment Quiz: Are You A Difficult Boss?

If you answered “yes” to any of the following questions, you need to reflect on and adjust your management style.

  • Do you give employees more critical feedback than appreciation, compliments, and positive feedback?
  • Do you undercut praise with criticism? In other words, do you deliver criticism with praise in the form of a “feedback sandwich,” undermine the positive impact of praise, and weaken the significance of the corrective feedback?
  • Do you give unfeasible or contradictory orders? For example, do you fail to give employees enough resources, time, and direction to get a job done?
  • Do you play favorites?
  • Do you reward “yes” people?
  • Do you avoid taking responsibility for your mistakes?
  • Do you focus on assigning blame and finding fault instead of fixing a problem?
  • Do you set deadlines and forget to follow up?
  • Do you micromanage too often?
  • Do you regularly coach your employees?
  • Do you invent busy work?
  • Do you stand up for your employees?
  • Are you sometimes self-absorbed and manipulative? Are you sometimes cold or abrupt?
  • Do you fail to give productive people encouragement, autonomy, and latitude?
  • Do you expect that there’s only one way to do a job, and that’s your way?
  • Do you raise your voice unnecessarily?
  • Do your employees avoid eye contact or dread meeting with you?
  • Do you act as if your team or organization would fall apart if you were to go on a vacation for a week? Do you expect regular updates from your team even while you’re on vacation?
  • Do you withhold information from your staff because it takes too much time to fill them in?
  • Do you ignore workplace concerns (inappropriate dressing, for example) until they evolve into problems? In other words, do you let concerns fester and let problematic situations get worse?

Nothing Deserves Certainty

Bertrand Russell on Certainty and Self-Doubts

In a 1960 TV interview, celebrated British mathematician and philosopher Bertrand Russell said,

I think nobody should be certain of anything. If you’re certain, you’re certainly wrong because nothing deserves certainty. So one ought to hold all one’s beliefs with a certain element of doubt, and one ought to be able to act vigorously in spite of the doubt. … One has in practical life to act upon probabilities, and what I should look to philosophy to do is to encourage people to act with vigor without complete certainty.

Intellectual Censorship

It’s regrettable that many ideas imprinted into the soft putty of an unformed mind sometimes remain there forever. Many people seem to believe the very first thing they’re told and stick with it for the rest of their life. What’s worse, they are often willing to defend that position to their death. They engage in intellectual censorship: not only do their core beliefs remain unexamined, but also any attempt to challenge their beliefs is taken as a grievous insult. They don’t realize that the suppression of opposing viewpoints doesn’t add credibility to an argument.

One reason could be laziness. In On Being Certain, Robert Burton highlights the neuroscience behind the discrepancies between genuine certainty and the feeling of certainty. Arguing that certainty is an emotion just like anger, passion, or sorrow, Burton provides summaries of many studies that show that people’s certainty about their beliefs is an emotional response that is distinct from how they process those beliefs. Consequently, once they develop a “that’s right” disposition about a subject matter, their brain subconsciously protects them from wasting its processing effort on problems for which they have already found a solution that they believe is good enough. In other words, their cerebral laziness subconsciously leads them to “do less” by simply embracing certainty rather than reexamining their assumptions.

Intellectual Censorship and Intellectual Arrogance

Intellectual Arrogance and Philosophical Idolatry

One outcome of feeling certain is intellectual arrogance. People who live by the illusion of their own self-sufficiency will shut their arrogant minds to alternative perspectives and even turn hostile towards those who possess or produce new ideas, since they regard their own truths as absolute without the need for alternative viewpoints or even amplification of their own convictions. On the other hand, people who recognize their limitations will necessarily feel modest about themselves and be enthusiastic to broaden their points of view. They actively seek differing viewpoints with compassion and gratitude and seek to cross-examine their convictions, strengthen them, explore alternative viewpoints, and perhaps discover new truths.

The 16th century English philosopher Francis Bacon wrote (per The New Organon and Related Writings,)

The human understanding when it has once adopted an opinion draws all things else to support and agree with it. And though there be a greater number and weight of instances to be found on the other side, yet these it either neglects and despises, or else by some distinction sets aside and rejects, in order that by this great and pernicious predetermination the authority of its former conclusion may remain inviolate.

The 19th Century British political philosopher John Stuart Mill actively advocated understanding every side of an argument because he wanted to “see that no scattered particles of important truth are buried and lost in the ruins of exploded error.” Mill explained in Early Essays:

Every prejudice, which has long and extensively prevailed among the educated and intelligent, must certainly be borne out by some strong appearance of evidence; and when it is found that the evidence does not prove the received conclusion, it is of the highest importance to see what it does prove. If this be thought not worth inquiring into, an error conformable to appearances is often merely exchanged for an error contrary to appearances; while, even if the result be truth, it is paradoxical truth, and will have difficulty in obtaining credence while the false appearances remain.

Uncertainty is a Fundamental Tenet of Thinking, Discovery, and Invention

Speaking of the virtues of uncertainty and doubt in the scientific and unscientific methods of questioning, experimenting, and understanding, the celebrated physicist Richard Feynman said in The Meaning of It All,

This experience with doubt and uncertainty is important. I believe that it is of very great value, and one that extends beyond the sciences. I believe that to solve any problem that has never been solved before, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar. You have to permit the possibility that you do not have it exactly right. Otherwise, if you have made up your mind already, you might not solve it.

When the scientist tells you he does not know the answer, he is an ignorant man. When he tells you he has a hunch about how it is going to work, he is uncertain about it. When he is pretty sure of how it is going to work, and he tells you, “This is the way it’s going to work, I’ll bet,” he still is in some doubt. And it is of paramount importance, in order to make progress, that we recognize this ignorance and this doubt. Because we have the doubt, we then propose looking in new directions for new ideas. The rate of the development of science is not the rate at which you make observations alone but, much more important, the rate at which you create new things to test.

If we were not able or did not desire to look in any new direction, if we did not have a doubt or recognize ignorance, we would not get any new ideas. There would be nothing worth checking, because we would know what is true. So what we call scientific knowledge today is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty. Some of them are most unsure; some of them are nearly sure; but none is absolutely certain. Scientists are used to this.

Reiterating the virtues of uncertainty in a discussion of the thought process of the French Renaissance philosopher Michel de Montaigne, author Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes in Fooled by Randomness (see my summary of this book):

It certainly takes bravery to remain skeptical; it takes inordinate courage to introspect, to confront oneself, to accept one’s limitations— scientists are seeing more and more evidence that we are specifically designed by mother nature to fool ourselves.

And British naturalist Charles Darwin wrote in his Autobiography,

As far as I can judge, I am not apt to follow blindly the lead of other men. I have steadily endeavoured to keep my mind free so as to give up any hypothesis, however much beloved (and I cannot resist forming one on every subject), as soon as facts are shown to be opposed to it.

Nothing Deserves Certainty

It’s a Narrow Mind that Stays Rooted in One Spot

The American jurist Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. wrote in Ideals and Doubts, “To have doubted one’s own first principles is the mark of a civilized man.”

An important characteristic of an educated person is an inquiring mind and the pursuit of intellectual growth. People of sound conviction have nothing to fear from civil debates and are willing to throw a wide net in exploring their own beliefs. They are ready to give up the refuge of a false dogma. They have no fear of meeting minds that may be sharply different from their own. Seek alternative—even opposing—perspectives to broaden your perspectives and persistently examine your biases and prejudices.

Charlie Munger, the widely respected vice-chairman of Berkshire Hathaway, constantly reminds us that one of our utmost intellectual duties is to scrutinize our most cherished ideas as ruthlessly and as intellectually as we can—something that’s hard to do.

Idea for Impact: Expose Yourself to Alternate Viewpoints and Grow Intellectually

If you earnestly survey an opposing viewpoint and find it is still erroneous, you have the satisfaction of knowing that your views withstood intellectual scrutiny. Alternatively, if you determine that another viewpoint is partly or wholly right, you have the equal satisfaction of softening your rigid position, setting your opinions right, and feeling smarter for not succumbing to your ego’s demand to cling to a sense of certainty. The German writer and philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe once wrote, “Let no one be ashamed to say yes today if yesterday he said no. Alternatively, to say no today if yesterday he said yes. For that is life. Never to have changed—what a pitiable thing of which to boast.”

By all means, dismiss ideas if you find that they lack coherence, evidence, or argumentative power—but don’t dismiss ideas merely because they disagree with your existing viewpoints. As the French writer and philosopher Voltaire said, “Doubt is not a pleasant condition, but certainty is absurd.”