The Luminous Ones: Richard Feynman

Today marks the 104th birthday of an extraordinary physicist, the Nobel laureate Richard Feynman (1918-1988). In remembrance of Mr. Feynman, I invite you to ponder on some memorable and witty quotes from one who is remembered as much for his scientific brilliance as for his playful nature and inquisitive storytelling.

Before we get to it, here’s a brief portrait of the man who has been called a scientific “magician.”

Feynman made his mark as an original genius, starting with his work on the Manhattan Project in his early twenties, through winning a Nobel Prize for his work in developing an understanding of quantum mechanics, and finally as a much-loved professor of undergraduate physics at Caltech. His lectures continue to be available in many places, providing a deep, yet intuitive way to understanding the laws of physics.

Feynman developed a method of thought characterized by a refusal to always defer to conventional wisdom and who sought to build his own understanding from the ground up, starting with an understanding of mathematics at a very young age. (Feynman’s early notebooks are records of him deriving algebra, calculus, trigonometry, and various higher maths on his own, with original results and notation. He confronted very problem he chose to ponder with the following questions: What can I know for sure, and how can I come to know it? It resulted in his famous quote, “You must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.” Feynman believed it and practiced it all through his luminous career.

Notable Quotes by Richard Feynman

On the Ultimate Fundamental Hypothesis in Physics

“If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generations of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words? I believe it is the atomic hypothesis … that all things are made of atoms — little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another.”

On the Power of Mathematics in the Physical Sciences

“To those who do not know mathematics it is difficult to get across a real feeling as to the beauty, the deepest beauty, of nature … If you want to learn about nature, to appreciate nature, it is necessary to understand the language that she speaks in.”

On Deep Learning

“I don’t know what’s the matter with people: they don’t learn by understanding; they learn by some other way – by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile! The way I study – (is) to understand something by trying to work it out or, in other words, to understand something by creating it. Not creating it one hundred percent, of course; but taking a hint as to which direction to go but not remembering the details. These you work out for yourself.

On Being an Independent Thinker

I” thought one should have the attitude of ‘What do you care what other people think!”

On the Limits of Understanding Nature

“What do we mean by ‘understanding’ something? We can imagine that this complicated array of moving things which constitutes ‘the world’ is something like a great chess game being played by the gods, and we are observers of the game. We do not know what the rules of the game are, all we are allowed to do is watch the playing. Of course, if we watch long enough, we may eventually catch on to a few of the rules. The rules of the game are what we mean by fundamental physics. Even if we knew every rule, however, we might not be able to understand why a particular move is made in the game, merely because it is too complicated and our minds are limited. If you play chess you must know that it is easy to learn all the rules, and yet it is often very hard to select the best move or to understand why a player moves as he does. So it is in nature, only much more so.”

On Living with the Questions

“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 uncertainty about different things, but I am 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. I don’t have to know an answer.”

On the Privilege of Doing Science

“I don’t like honors…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.”

And now, a famous one-liner that is quintessentially Feynman:

I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.

A strange quote indeed, from one of the pioneers of quantum mechanics! But the words make sense when you understand how Feynman’s thought process works. Science popularizers often use real-world metaphors to bring specialized knowledge to the public. This was not the case with Feynman. When he delivered that famous quote during a conference at Cornell University in 1964, he was trying to convince his listeners not to try to understand his explanation “in terms of something familiar.” Instead, he announced that he would simply describe how nature works, inviting those present to “relax and enjoy it.” For Feynman, to understand nature means using the language of nature (principally mathematics) to encapsulate nature’s laws, and not to rely on easy mental “clutches”, which deflect from true understanding.

Richard Feynman (11 May 1918 – 15 Feb 1988)

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