by Maria Popova
Explaining the scientific process with chess, or why childlike wonder is key to getting unstuck in science.
As physicists write another inconclusive chapter in the epic hunt for the “God particle” this week, it’s time to revisit one of the scientists whose work shaped modern physics. Richard Feynman, known as the “Great Explainer,” is one of my big intellectual heroes and a Brain Pickings frequenter — from his timeless insights on beauty, honors, and curiosity to his wonderful recent graphic novel biography, among the best science books of 2011 and a fine addition to our favorite masterpieces of graphic nonfiction.
In 1993, five years after Feynman’s death, BBC set out to capture his spirit and his scientific legacy in a fantastic documentary titled Richard Feynman: No Ordinary Genius, part of their excellent Horizon program, which has also brought us such fascinations as the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, and what time really is. The film was subsequently adapted into the book No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman, and the documentary is now available on YouTube in its entirety — enjoy.
When Feynman faces a problem, he’s unusually good at going back to being like a child, ignoring what everyone else thinks… He was so unstuck — if something didn’t work, he’d look at it another way.” ~ Marvin Minsky, MIT
At around minute 39, Feynman gives a fantastic analogy-turned-explanation that captures what’s essentially the heart of the scientific process:
In the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along, but in the physics, when you discover new things, it looks more simple. It appears, on the whole, to be more complicated because we learn about a greater experience — that is, we learn about more particles and new things — and so the laws look more complicated again. But if you realize all the time, what’s kind of wonderful is as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which turns out to be simpler than it looked before.”
Tender and intelligent, the film reveals some of Feynman’s defining qualities: his intense cross-disciplinary curiosity and determination (he taught himself to be a skillful artist, studying drawing like he studied science); his thoughtful, caring character (the anecdote Joan, Feynman’s younger sister, recounts at about 9:04 is just about the most poetic expression of nerd-affection I’ve ever encountered); and, perhaps above all, the remarkable blend of humility and genius that made him able to see error and wrongness as an essential piece of intellectual inquiry and truth itself.