Richard Feynman: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1981)

BBC Horizon (1981)

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Richard Feynman was one of the most brilliant theoretical physicists and original thinkers of the 20th century. He rebuilt the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and it was for this work that he won the Nobel Prize in 1965. In 1981, he gave Horizon a candid interview, talking about many things close to his heart. Here a partial transcript of the conversation:

The beauty of a flower : Can a scientist really enjoy the beauty of a flower?

I have a friend who's an artist and he's sometimes taken a view which I don't agree with very well. He'll hold up a flower and say, "Look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree, I think. And he says - "you see, I as an artist can see how beautiful this is, but you as a scientist, oh, take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing." And I think that he's kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me, too, I believe, although I might not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is; but I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time I see much more about the flower than he sees. I can imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside which also have a beauty. I mean it's not just beauty at this dimension of one centimetre, there is also beauty at a smaller dimension, the inner structure. Also the processes, the fact that the colours in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pllinate it is interesting - it means that insects can see the colour. It adds a question: Does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kins of interesting questions which shows that science knowledge only adds to the excitement and mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds; I don't understand how it subtracts.

Avoiding humanities: Feynman tells us how much of a scientist he is.

I've always been very one-sided about science and when I was younger I concentrated almost all my effort on it. I didn't have time to learn and I didn't have much patience with what's called the humanities, even though in the university there were humanities that you had to take. I tried my best to avoid somehow learning anything and working at it. It was only afterwards, when I got older, that I got more relaxed, that I've spread out a little bit. I've learned to draw and I read a little bit, but I'm really still a very one-sided person and I don't know a great deal. I have a limited intelligence and I use it in a particular direction.

Doubt and uncertainty: Feynman's views on knowing the answers to everything.

You see, one thing is, I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I'm not absolutely sure of anything and there are 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 and 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 a mysterious Universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is so far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me.

Invitation to the bomb: In early 1943 Feynman joined Oppenheimer's team at Los Alamos.

The original reason to start the project, which was that the Germans were a danger, started me off on a process of action which was to try to develop this first system at Princeton and then at Los Alamos, to try to make the bomb work. All kinds of attempts were made to redesign it to make it a worse bomb and so on. It was a project on which we all worked very, very hard, all co-operating together. And with any project like that you continue to work trying to get success, having decided to do it. But what I did - immorally I would say - was not to remember the reason that I said I was doing it, so that when the reason changed, because Germany was defeated, not the singlest thought came to my mind at all about that, that that meant now that I have to reconsider why I am continuing to do this. I simply didn't think, okay?

Success and suffering: On 6 August 1945 the bomb was dropped over Hiroshima, instantly killing nearly 100,000 people.

The only reaction that I remember - perhaps I was blinded by my own reaction - was a very considerable elation and excitement, and there were parties and people got drunk and it would make a tremendously interesting contrast, what was going on in Los Alamos at the same time as what was going on in Hiroshima. I was involved with this happy thing and also drinking and drunk and playing drums sitting on the hood of, the bonnet of, a Jeep and playing drums with excitement running all over Los Alamos at the same time as people were dying and struggling in Hiroshima. I had a very strong reaction after the war of a peculiar nature - it may be from just the bomb itself and it may be for some other psychological reasons, I'd just lost my wife or something. But I remember being in New York with my mother in a restaurant, immediately after, and thinking about New York, and I knew how big the bomb in Hiroshima was, how big an area it covered and so on, and I realised from where we were - I don't know, 59th Street - that to drop one of the 34th Street, it would spread all the way out here and all these people would be killed and all the things would be killed. And there wasn't only one bomb available, but it was easy to continue to make them, and therefore that things were sort of doomed because already it appeared to me - very early, earlier than to others who were more optimistic - that international relations and the way people were behaving were no different than they had ever been before and that it was just going to go on the same way as any other thing and I was sure that it was going, therefore, to be used very soon. So I felt uncomfortable, and thought, really believed, that it was silly: I would see people building a bridge and I would say "they don't understand." I really believed that it was senseless to make anything because it would all be destroyed very soon anyway, but they didn't understand that and I had this very strange view of any construction I would see, I would always think how foolish they are to try to make something. So I was really in a kind of depressive condition.

Dino in the window: Feynman speaks about the influence his father had on him as a child.

We had the Encyclopaedia Britannica at home and even when I was a small boy he used to sit me on his lap and read to me from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, and we would read, say, about dinosaurs and maybe it would be talking about the brontosaurus or something, or the tyrannosaurus rex, and it would say something like, "This thing is twentyfive feet high and the head is six feet across," you see, and so he'd stop all this and say, "Let's see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window as it came by." Everything we'd read would be translated as best we could into some reality and so I learned to do that - everything that I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it's really saying by translating and so I used to read the Encyclopaedia when I was a boy but with translation, you see, so it was very exciting and interesting to think there were animals of such magnitude - I wasn't frightened that there would be one coming in my window as a consequence of this, I don't think, but I thought that it was very, very interesting, that they all died out and at that time nobody knew why.

Epaulettes and the pope: Feynman explains how his father - a uniform salesman - taught him lessons in respect.

One of the things that my father taught me besides physics - whether it's correct or not - was a disrespect for respectable... for certain kinds of things. For example, when I was a little boy, and a rotogravure - that's printed pictures in newspapers - first came out in the New York Times, he used to sit me again on his knee and he'd open a picture, and there was a picture of the Pope and everybody bowing in front of him. And he'd say, "Now look at these humans. Here is one human standing here, and all these others are bowing. Now what is the difference? This one is the Pope" - he hated teh Pope anyway - and he'd say, "the difference is epaulettes" - of course not in the case of the Pope, but if he was a general - it was always the uniform, the position, "but this man has the same human problems, he eats dinner like anybody else, he goes to the bathroom, he has the same kind of problems as everybody, he's a human being. Why are they all bowing to him? Only because of his name and his position, because of his uniform, not because of something special he did, or his honour, or something like that." He, by the way, was in the uniform business, so he knew what the difference was between the man with the uniform off and the uniform on: it's the same man for him.

The photon bag: Feynman tells us how he tried to explain physics to his father.

He was happy with me, I believe. Once, though, when I came back from MIT - I'd been there a few years - he said to me, "Now", he said, "you've become educated about these things and there's one question I've always had that I've never understood very well and I'd like to ask you, now that you've studied this, to explain it to me," and I asked him what it was. And he said that he understood that when an atom made a transition from one state to another it emits a particla of light called a photon. I said, "That's right." And he says, "Well, now, is the photon in the atom ahead of time that it comes out, or is there no photon in it so start with?" I says, "There's no photon in, it's just that when the electron makes a transition it comes" and he says "Well, where does it come from then, how does it come out?" So I couldn't say, "The view is that photon numbers aren't conserved, they're just created by the motion of the electron." I couldn't try to explain to him something like: the sound that I'm making now wasn't in me. It's not like my little boy who when he started to talk, suddenly said that he could no longer say a certain word - the word was "cat" - because his word bag has run out of the word cat. So there's no word bag that you have inside so that you use up the words as they come out, you just make them as they go along, and in the same sense there was no photon bag in an atom and when the photons come out they didn't come from somewhere, but I couldn't do much better. He was not satisfied with me in the respect that I never was able to explain any of the things that he didn't understand. So he was unsuccessful, he sent me through all these universities in order to find out these things and he never did find out.

Winning the Nobel Prize: Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics.

What I essentially did - and also it was done independently by two other people, Tomanaga in Japan and Schwinger - was to figure out how to control, how to analyse and discuss the original quantum theory of electricity and magnetism that had been written in 1928; how to interpret it so as to avoid the infinities, to make calculations for which there were sensible results which have since turned out to be in exact agreement with every experiment wich has been done so far, so that quantum electrodynamics fits experiment in every detail where it's applicable - not involving the nuclear forces, for instance - and it was the work that I did in 1947 to figure out how to do that, for which I won the Nobel Prize.

Was it worth it? Feynman reveals what he really thinks about the Nobel Prize and other honours.

I don't know anything about the Nobel Prize, I don't understand what it's all about or what's worth what, but if the people in the Swedish Academy decide that X, y or z wins the Nobel Prize then so be it. I won't have anything to do with the Nobel Prize... it's a pain in the... I don't like honours. I appreciate it for the work that I did, and for people who appreciate it, and I know there's a lot of physicists who use my work, I don't need anything else. I don't see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that this work is noble enough to receive a prize - I've already got the prize. The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it - those are the real things, the honours are unreal to me. I don't believe in honours, it bothers me, honours bother, honours is epaulettes, honours is uniforms, my papa brought me up this way. I can't stand it, it hurts me. When I was in high school, one of the first honours I got was to be a member of the Arista, which is a group of kids who got good grades - eh? - and everybody wanted to be a member of the Arista, and when I got into the Arista I discovered that what they did in their meetings was to sit around to discuss who else was worthy to join this wonderful group that we are - okay? So we that around trying to decide who it was who would get to be allowed into this Arista. This kind of thing bothers me psychologically for one or another reason I don't understand myself - honours - and from that day to this always bothered me. When I became a member of the National Academy of Sciences, I had ultimately to resign because that was another organisation most of whose time was spent in choosing who was illustrious enough to join, to be allowed to join us in our organisation, including such questions as we physicists stick together because they've a very good chemist that they're trying to get in and we haven't got enough room for so-and-so. What's the matter with chemists? The whole thing was rotten because its purpose was mostly to decide who could have this honour - okay? I don't like honours.


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