“What I cannot build, I cannot understand.”

Richard Feynman invented a whole new way of talking about quantum electrodynamics when writing his PhD thesis at Princeton, which eventually helped him detail some of the properties of weak-force in particle physics in his Nobel prize winning work. Later he invented “Feynman’s diagrams” as an intuitive graphical representation of particle physics, which are still used in theoretical physics to this day.

However, he became famous in part through his maverick and distinctive antics. He was a real character: a very curious character. When at Los Alamos working on the atomic bomb, from picking the locks of his colleagues cabinets which contained top secrets, to playing games with the security personnel; naming a few of his antics which had earned him a well deserved reputation of being a trickster and an iconoclast. Freeman Dyson once wrote that Feynman was “half-genius, half-buffoon”, but later changed this to “all-genius, all-buffoon”. Quickly recognized by the intellectual giants of theoretical physics as a brilliant and quick mind, Feynman was sought out by the innovative thinkers of the day. Contemptous of titles, like all Rationals, when awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics, he tried to figure out a way to get out of accepting it.

Learn, Unlearn, Learn

Feynman understood his father very early in his childhood. Melvin Feynman had not been able to pursue his own interest — science — because he never had the means to pay for advanced schooling. Luckily his son naturally had the same Temperament and interest, and Melvin got his wish that his son became a scientist.

Richard and Melvin were close, for they would take long walks and Melvin would talk to his son about the world. What Melvin did was to teach Richard to notice things.

“He … taught me: “See that bird? Its a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian it’s Chutto Lapittitda. In Portuguese, it is Bom Da Peida. … You can know the name of the bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know nothing whatsoever about the world. You’ll know about the humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it is doing — that’s what counts.” I learned very early from my father the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.”

Richard grew up loving to do experiments; he had a laboratory in the basement of his home. He excelled in school. He picked up an algebra book in elementary school and taught himself some parts of it. Gaining in his confidence, he continued learning on his own when he picked up calculus. In his senior year in high school physics, his teacher, Adam Bader, realized Richard was bored because he knew most of what is being taught, making it hard for him to pay close attention. Bader, a real scientist forced to teach in high school because of the Depression, gave him a book to learn higher order mathematics, such as Bessel functions, so that Richard was well in advance of other students of his age by the time he entered college at MIT.

Feynman claimed that his secret weapon was not his intelligence, but rather a strategy he learned in high school. According to Feynman, Bader, his physics teacher, asked him to stay after class one day and gave him a challenge. [1]

“Feynman,” Bader said, “you talk too much and you make too much noise. I know why. You’re bored. So I’m going to give you a book. You go up there in the back, in the corner, and study this book, and when you know everything that’s in this book, you can talk again.” 

So each day, Feynman would hide in the back of the classroom and study the book—Advanced Calculus by Woods—while the rest of the class continued with their regular lessons. And it was while studying this old calculus textbook that Feynman began to develop his own set of methods of analysis.

“That book showed how to differentiate parameters under the integral sign,” Feynman wrote. “It turns out that’s not taught very much in the universities; they don’t emphasize it. But I caught on how to use that method, and I used that one damn tool again and again. So because I was self-taught using that book, I had peculiar methods of doing integrals.

They [Inventor Rationals] are intensely curious and continously probe for possibilities, especially concerning complex problems… Inventors are the most reluctant of all the types to do things in a particular manner just because that is the way things have always been done.” [Please Understand Me II, p202]

Being very good at mathematics, Richard was initially interested in a degree the subject, but he couldn’t figure out what mathematics was good for and it was too abstract for his taste. He switched to electrical engineering, but found out quickly that wasn’t where his heart was either — it was too detailed. He settled on physics — just right — , “real” but not too abstract or too detailed, and useful.

At MIT he was in his element. He found a friend in Ted Welton. He and Welton helped each other learning quantum mechanics and relativity. Welton knew something of relativity and Richard knew something of quantum mechanics. There were no formal courses in quantum mechanics, so when they asked a faculty member, Phillip Morse, where they could learn it, Morse said “I will teach you.” Morse instructed them in his office, suggesting a research project as homework. Morse had a new invented a new method of calculation, and he had Welton and Feynman calculate some problems involving light atoms. Their results were useful to Harvard astronomers; Feynman reported these results to the astronomers, realizing that what he was doing was useful, not just an academic exercise. He liked that.

As an undergraduate, Feynman had learned that the fundamental problems in quantum electrodynamics were being pursued at the time. The last sentence in Dirac’s classic book gave him inspiration because it opened to door in new ideas — Dirac said, “It seems that some essential new physical ideas are needed here.”

“These men like Heisenberg and Pauli, who had worked on quantum electrodynamics and had been stuck with the difficulties of solving the problem of infinities, did not know anything; I’m going to show them how to do it!” — Richard Feynman

Comfortable in science circles, Richard wasn’t that comfortable in formal situations. The famous anecdote, being the title of one of his bestselling books, Surely you are joking, Mr. Feynman, Feynman tells of the classic interaction between him and a Provider Guardian, Mrs. Eisenhart, although Feynman did not know anything of Temperament. Going to Princeton tea, a tradition at Princeton for graduate students, Feynman, a new graduate student and being an unsophisticated, from a modest background, ethnic Jew, rube from the Bronx, first encountered the hidebound social world of the Protestant influential and well to do in the 1930’s.

… I had not social abilities whatsoever; I had no experience with this sort of thing. So I come up to the door, and there’s Dean Eisenhart, greeting new students: “Oh you’re Mr Feynman,” he says “We’re glad to have you.” So that helped a little, because he recognized me, somehow. I go through the door, and there are some ladies, and some girls, too. It’s all very formal and I’m thinking about where to sit down and should I sit next to this girl, or not, and how should I behave, when I hear a voice behind me. “Would you like cream or lemon in your tea, Mr Feynman?” — It’s Mrs. Eisenhart pouring tea.

“I’ll have both, thank you,” I say, still looking for where I’m going to sit, when suddenly I hear — “Heh-heh-heh-heh-heh. Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman.”

Subtle social conventions, well developed in this Guardian world, are easily violated by this oafish kind of Rational rube. However, Feynman, a keen observer of human behavior, eventually understood this encounter with this kind of human creature. Intuitively understanding the social dynamics, well beyond Mrs Eisenhart’s comprehension, Feynman did what most Rationals do with these social situations — ignored them whenever possible, and go his own way.

Different Drums and
A Different Drummer

Fredrick Reines recalled: “He was a marvelous guy. He looked like a hick and talked like a New Yorker. He was very considerate and kind, a really fine boss.” On the otherhand, said his long time friend Ted Welton of Feynman’s interaction with his colleagues, “We all saw him diplomatically, forcefully, usually with humor (gentle or not, as needed) dissuade a respected colleague from some unwise course. We all saw him forcefully rebuke a colleague less favored by his respect, frequently with ungentle humor. Only a fool would have subjected himself twice to such an experience.”

Rationals want to govern themselves, and also think for themselves. From an early age Rationals will not accept anyone’s else’s ideas without first scrutinizing them for error. It doesn’t matter whether the person is a widely accepted authority or not; the fact that a so-called “expert” proclaims something leaves the Rational indifferent. [Please Understand Me II, p185]

At Los Alamos, Feynman also met Niels Bohr. Bohr’s pseudonym at the Manhattan Project, for security, was Nicholas Baker. Even to the big guys at Los Alamos, Bohr was a great god. But Feynman always spoke his mind when talking physics. “I was always dumb about one thing. I never knew who I was talking to. I was always worried [only] about physics.” Bohr observed that trait in Feynman, so when Bohr came to Los Alamos again for an important meeting, he arranged to talk to Feynman about his ideas before calling in the other people. He knew Feynman would not be a sycophant, agreeing with his ideas just because he was Bohr.

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself — and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to be honest in a conventional way after that.” — Feynman

Inventor Rationals include: Atul GawandeLarry PageElaine MorganLynn MargulisElon MuskSteve JobsJoseph James SylvesterFrances CrickPaul AllenWerner Von BraunWolfgang PauliAbraham LincolnMark TwainHedy LamarrJulius Sumner Miller, and Zhang Xin

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