Feynman And Explaining Things

A very illuminating write-up by Danny Hillis (of Connection Machine fame) of his time working with with Feynman, the famous physicist. In particular, there’s a section discussing his extraordinary ability to communicate complicated ideas simply and effectively:

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

“We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids.”

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

This is of course a special ability not shared by most technical experts and it’s this inability that often forms a barrier to innovation progress (see here).

Apart from the topic of explaining things, there are quite a few interesting and often surprising snippets throughout the article, like:

Every great man that I have known has had a certain time and place in their life that they use as a reference point; a time when things worked as they were supposed to and great things were accomplished. For Richard, that time was at Los Alamos during the Manhattan Project. Whenever things got “cockeyed,” Richard would look back and try to understand how now was different than then.

For more information on Feynman, there are the very readable biographies by Gleick and by the Gribbins.

There’s also the interesting short book by Mlodinow that’s based on the conversations he had with him whilst a new graduate researcher at Cal Tech. I bought this when it came out but only got round to reading it last weekend. Quite a candid insight into topics that are not commonly talked about, including the fears and uncertainties of new researchers in ‘hot-house’ environments.

I have some personal memories of Feynman myself as I co-organised  a specialist workshop on a small island off the north coast of German in 1987 and he was invited and to our great surprise (and delight) he agreed to attend.

I’m in the process of writing this up, before I forget it entirely! There are some interesting mini-stories, including; why he decided to come, some of his reflections on the Challenger episode, speaking Chinese and challenging security processes at airports!

See also here.

Photo credits: top and bottom.


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