My name is Ben O’Steen and I am a Feynman Fanboy.

Posted on August 29, 2011

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And I am okay with that.

He is simply the most brilliant researcher and the clearest, most entertaining educator I can think of. He had a huge effect on me as I grew up, and I would say I can only underestimate the impact he had on me.

If you didn’t know of him before, please read his wikipedia page. He was absolutely crucial to the development of an area of quantum mechanics called Quantum Electro[D]ynamics or QED, and it still remains the most accurate and complete theory insofar as we can test its limits.

I recommend reading his biographies – especially his somewhat autobiographical accounts of his earlier years in “Surely you are joking, Mr Feynman!“. You absolutely do not need to feel comfortable with science to enjoy them at all. In fact, it was his lack of concern for the normal subject ‘boundaries’ that I attempt to keep in mind to this day – to not exclude new ideas just because they haven’t come from the subject area you were expecting, to widen the view with which you see the world. He was also a keen bongo player and artist, many of his drawings and so on can be found by googling for “Art by Ofey”, Ofey being his pseudonym.

His upbringing was modest to say the least but replete with tales of him tinkering and repairing things in his parent’s basement. I mimicked his early years (without his brilliance however), pottering around with junk and odds and ends, exploring the world around me and felt a connection of sorts to him by that. Of course, I didn’t invent my own language for mathematics as he did but I admired his spirit and felt an understanding with his drive to understand the world.

One of the things I admired most about his life as a teacher was that he never cheated anyone with his explanations but we capable of using simple language and metaphors to explain to even most adamant non-scientist the beauty of the phenomena around them. When I say cheated, he was very explicit in trying incredibly hard to never give an explanation that he subsequently had to change later on. This is something that the current UK science syllabus has yet to avoid in my opinion, although ironically it has made the syllabi require fewer cheating explanations to be taught by replacing them with more subjective topics, such as whether life exists on other planets, pros and cons of recycling, and how to debate the global climate change.

To illustrate further, consider a student starting GCSE: “All the things you learnt in primary school? yeah, those are wrong, this is what you need to know for the exams”, and then A-Levels: “All the things you learnt for GCSE?  yeah, those aren’t true, they are over-simplifications and are incorrect. This is what you need to write for your exams to pass.” and finally degree-level:”You learnt WHAT? that’s complete bullcrap. Start again.”

This says nothing about teaching or teachers. I want to draw a clear line between the quality of the teachers themselves, and the syllabus they had to teach. The teaching I received at the time was stellar and engaging, ignoring the exam syllabus in many cases until it came time for the examinations. We often looked the manner in which exams were marked and which historic explanations to give in lieu of the real ones. Mainly because explanations which didn’t use these oversimplifications would not fit in the time or space given for them.

The BBC provide a wonderful archive of Feynman’s ‘chats‘ – “Richard Feynman: Fun to Imagine | Using physics to explain how the world works”, which were recorded in 1983 and are still as insightful and information for anyone to hear now. I truly recommend watching them all, especially the second armchair chat about elastic bands and magnets. The second part to it is illuminating on several levels, the part which starts with the interviewer asking a question along the lines of “why to magnets repel each other?” Feynman at first seems to question the question confrontationally, but over the next 6 or 7 minutes, he elaborates on why that question is both an excellent question and and very difficult question to answer, not directly because of the science involved, but because answers to all questions that ask “Why” are difficult. A successful answer depends entirely on the facts that the questioner understands and accepts. Feynman does a far better job than I can of explaining it, so I will not even attempt it!

Going Deeper

I have recently found some video footage of Feynman giving a series of lectures, The Douglas Robb Memorial lectures, at the University of Auckland in 1979. I will copy their description below, as I think it sums up the four 1hr+ lectures succintly:

Chosen by the New Scientist – best on-line videos 2007. A set of four priceless archival science video recordings from the University of Auckland (New Zealand) of the outstanding Nobel prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman – arguably the greatest science lecturer ever. Although the recording is of modest technical quality the exceptional personal style and unique delivery shine through.

Feynman gives us not just a lesson in basic physics but also a deep insight into the scientific mind of a 20th century genius analyzing the approach of the 17th century genius Newton.

For the young scientist, brought up in this age of hi-tech PC/Power Point-based presentations, we also get an object lesson in how to give a lecture with nothing other than a piece of chalk and a blackboard. Furthermore we are shown how to respond with wit and panache to the technical mishaps that are part-and-parcel of the lecturer`s life.

– from http://vega.org.uk/video/subseries/8

I wholeheartedly recommend watching them, especially if you don’t think that you can understand physics or maths or science in general. At least watch the first one, please!

What sparked this blog post?

Simply that during an IM conversation where Feynman came up, I remembered how much I desired the Feynman lectures series when growing up. They were priced completely out of my league for much of my life and I only got what felt like tiny glipses of them, even though I likely coveted the volumes for hours like a greedy child when I found them in a local library. My first girlfriend at college had the full set on her shelves and to say that her having copies of them didn’t impact my first impressions of her would be an outright lie.

You know what I realised during the IM session?

I earn money now.

Like, actual money that folds rather than jingles.

I can like, totally afford them now!

I can even get them in a few clicks too!

I can stop saying the word ‘like’!

So here I am, expounding on the virtues of Richard Feynman, waiting for the post to arrive…

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Posted in: fun, motivation, opinion