Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize-winning physicist who cared a great deal about education. Some of Feynman’s books for a popular audience are full of interesting and fun stories; hidden in the humor are some gems for educators.
Background and Life
Feynman was born in Far Rockaway, New York, which is on Long Island. He went to public schools and then to MIT for his undergraduate degree and Princeton for his Ph.D. Prior to finishing his Ph.D., he was called to work on the Manhattan project. He then finished his Ph.D. and became a college professor. Feynman began his teaching career at Cornell and later moved to Caltech. In addition to teaching, he was a drum player, an occasional artist, and a renaissance person.
After the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986, Feynman was tapped to be a part of the Rogers Commission that was charged to investigate. He took his position on the Commission seriously and spoke with many NASA people, discovering that there was a discrepancy between estimates of safety and real life engineering practices. He ended up writing his own addendum to the Commission’s report because he disagreed with their conclusions.
Feynman died in 1988 after a long battle with cancer. He was survived by his wife, Gweneth, and his two children, Carl and Michelle.
Feynman’s Own Education
In addition to attending public school, there were two significant influences on his education. The first was his father. It’s likely Feynman’s love of science stemmed from the way in which his father supported his curiosity and guided him in finding answers to his questions. He once described how his father taught him:
“Looking at a bird he [Feynman’s father] says,
“Do you know what that bird is? It’s a brown throated thrush, but in Portuguese, it’s a… in Italian, a…” he says “in Chinese, it’s a… in Japanese, a…,” etcetera.
“Now,” he says, “you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you’ve finished with all that,” he says, “you’ll know absolutely nothing whatsoever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now,” he says, “let’s look at the bird.”
(The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, p. 4)
Feynman’s father taught him to observe and to hypothesize. His parents also allowed him to have a science lab and learned a lot that way. A teacher also supported his efforts at self-education. Feynman was more advanced than other students in a science course, so the teacher gave him some advanced mathematics books and Feynman learned independently from them.
For the rest of his life, Feynman learned. He learned to do biology research, speak Portuguese, understand Mayan numbers, crack safes, play the drums, fix radios, teach ants not to invade his jelly, and metal-plate some plastics. At the end of his life, when he was ill from cancer, he continued to learn about why NASA had allowed a space shuttle to take off despite many warning signs that something could go wrong. He last words were to the effect that he was glad he didn’t have to die twice since it was so boring.
Teaching and Learning for Understanding
There are four books that Feynman participated in writing that deal with stories he told. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, and Tuva or Bust (written after Feynman’s death but about a quest Feynman had) were recorded and edited by Ralph Leighton, who was a friend of Feynman’s. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a collection of stories told by Feynman and edited by Jeffrey Robbins.
These books contain a lot of Feynman’s pranks along with interesting and funny stories from his professional and personal history. He describes his experiences as a student at MIT and Princeton, his work as a physicist, and ways in which he got interested in the various pursuits he had such as drawing, his adventures at Los Alamos and as a professor, and his work on the Challenger accident. Along the way, his experiences as a teacher and his exasperation with poor teaching practices become apparent.
Love of Teaching
While many researchers feel that teaching takes away from their work, Feynman always acknowledged the ways in which teaching helped him. His interactions with students helped to keep him fresh and stay productive when he was between ideas in quantum mechanics. In fact, he wrote some engaging lectures that introduced physics to undergraduates and these were collected into book form.
He also appreciated science teachers. In this day when so many teachers are being told they don’t know what they are doing, Feynman’s words are refreshing:
“In the first place, from the way that I am preparing to give this lecture, it may seem that I am trying to tell you how to teach science—I am not at all in any way, because I don’t know anything about small children. I have one, so I know that I don’t know. The other is I think that most of you—because there is so much talk and so many papers and so many experts in the field—have some kind of a feeling of lack of self-confidence. In some way, you are always being lectured on how things are not going too well and how you should learn to teach better. I am not going to berate you for the bad work you are doing and indicate how it can definitely be improved; that is not my intention.
As a matter of fact, we have very good students coming into Caltech, and during the years we found them getting better and better. Now how it is done, I don’t know. I wonder if you know. I don’t want to interfere with the system; it is very good.”
(What Is Science, p. 313)
The Problem of Memorization
At one point, Feynman had an opportunity to go to Brazil where, among other things, he learned Portuguese well enough to give scientific talks in the language and played in a samba band. There he taught physics at a university and he discovered that his students sometimes seemed to know a lot about physics and sometimes almost nothing:
“[While teaching] I discovered a very strange phenomenon: I could ask a question, which the students would answer immediately. But the next time I would ask the question—the same subject, and the same question, as far as I could tell—they couldn’t answer it at all! For instance, one time I was talking about polarized light, and I gave them all some strips of polaroid.
Polaroid passes only light whose electric vector is in a certain direction, so I explained how you could tell which way the light is polarized from whether the polaroid is dark or light.
We first took two strips of polaroid and rotated them until they let the most light through. From doing that we could tell that the two strips were now admitting light polarized in the same direction—what passed through one piece of polaroid could also pass through the other. But then I asked them how one could tell the absolute direction of polarization, for a single piece of polaroid.
They hadn’t any idea.
I knew this took a certain amount of ingenuity, so I gave them a hint: “Look at the light reflected from the bay outside.”
Nobody said anything.
Then I said, “Have you ever heard of Brewster’s Angle?”
“Yes, sir! Brewster’s Angle is the angle at which light reflected from a medium with an index of refraction is completely polarized.”
“And which way is the light polarized when it’s reflected?”
“The light is polarized perpendicular to the plane of reflection, sir.” Even now, I have to think about it; they knew it cold! They even knew the tangent of the angle equals the index!
I said, “Well?”
Still nothing. They had just told me that light reflected from a medium with an index, such as the bay outside, was polarized; they had even told me which way it was polarized.
I said, “Look at the bay outside, through the polaroid. Now turn the polaroid.”
“Ooh, it’s polarized!” they said.
After a lot of investigation, I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but they didn’t know what anything meant. When they heard “light that is reflected from a medium with an index,” they didn’t know that it meant a material such as water. They didn’t know that the “direction of the light” is the direction in which you see something when you’re looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorized, yet nothing had been translated into meaningful words. So if I asked, “What is Brewster’s Angle?” I’m going onto the computer with the right keywords. But if I say, “Look at the water,” nothing happens—they don’t have anything under “Look at the water”! (
(Surely You’re Joking, pp. 137-138)
For Feynman, science was a discovery process characterized by systematic observation such that hypotheses could be tested and resulting theories could later be used to predict phenomena. The way in which science has too often been taught is a discrete series of facts that must be memorized. Feynman loved science enough that he hated to see it bowdlerized this way. He also was a person who just automatically investigated things he observed, whether it was the process by which his brain fell asleep or the way in which ants know how to get back to the nest after having found food.
Just as we hope students will think like authors as they develop their writing, we also must support students in developing their natural curiosity into scientific inquiry. This is not accomplished through memorizing scientific facts but, rather, through participation in exploration. It would be far better for a group of students to go outside with a magnifying glass and a teacher who knows how to ask about their observations and extend their thinking than for them to continually do “experiments” where the results are predetermined by the teacher’s manual.
Feynman had more than a little difficulty with textbooks and how they are too often written. When he was in Brazil, he shared with science educators there his concerns about a popular physics textbook:
“I have discovered something else [regarding a physics textbook],” I continued. “By flipping the pages at random, and putting my finger in and reading the sentences on that page, I can show you what’s the matter—how it’s not science, but memorizing, in every circumstance. Therefore I am brave enough to flip through the pages now, in front of this audience, to put my finger in, to read, and to show you.
So I did it. Brrrrrrrup—[Feynman’s own vocal sound effect] I stuck my finger in, and I started to read: “Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed.
I said, “And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven’t told anything about nature—what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can’t.
“But if, instead, you were to write, ‘When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence.” ‘ Then someone will go home and try it. Then there’s an experience of nature.”
(Surely You’re Joking, pp. 140-141)
Textbooks need to support students in their development of scientific thought. Books need to use the kind of language that invites students’ curiosity and that shows students some interesting things they can explore.
A further problem with textbooks is that they can be misleadingly inaccurate, which does a disservice to STEM fields. Feynman was asked by the California State Curriculum Committee to review mathematics textbooks for potential adoption in public schools. A big problem was that the books represented mathematics in misleading and inauthentic ways:
“Finally I come to a book that says, “Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars.” I turn the page, and it says, “Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees…” —so far, so good. It continues: “Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number).” There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It’s vaguely right—but already, trouble!
That’s the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don’t quite understand what they’re talking about, I cannot understand. I don’t know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!
Anyway, I’m happy with this book, because it’s the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I’m a bit unhappy when I read about the stars’ temperatures, but I’m not very unhappy because it’s more or less right—it’s just an example of error. Then [follows] the list of problems. It says, “John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?”—and I would explode in horror.
My wife would talk about the volcano downstairs. That’s only an example: it was perpetually like that. Perpetual absurdity! There’s no purpose whatsoever in adding the temperature of two stars. Nobody ever does that except, maybe, to then take the average temperature of the stars, but not to find out the total temperature of all the stars! It was awful! All it was was a game to get you to add and they didn’t understand what they were talking about. It was like reading sentences with a few typographical errors and then suddenly a whole sentence is written backward. The mathematics was like that. Just hopeless!”
(Surely You’re Joking, p. 192)
If we want our students to get interested in STEM fields and to do well in them, we need to provide them with intellectually honest learning materials. While it’s not likely that a Californian child will remember the adding star temperature problem, if all the textbooks have this kind of error, children will grow up with no idea what scientists really do or how they do it. Adding star temperatures will be one of a long list of arbitrary activities students do on the way to college which essentially lower intellectual standards. Our children deserve better than that.
Finally, Feynman liked to think through things from first principles. As much as possible, he did not take other people’s word for things. In his discussion about what science is, he states:
“This phenomenon of having a memory for the race, of having an accumulated knowledge passable from one generation to another, was new in the world. But it had a disease in it. It was possible to pass on mistaken ideas. It was possible to pass on ideas which were not profitable for the race. The race has ideas, but they are not necessarily profitable.
So there came a time in which the ideas, although accumulated very slowly, were all accumulations not only of practical and useful things, but great accumulations of all types of prejudices, and strange and odd beliefs.
Then a way of avoiding the disease was discovered. This is to doubt that what is being passed from the past is, in fact, true, and to try to find out ab initio, again from experience, what the situation is, rather than trusting the experience of the past in the form in which it is passed down. And that is what science is: the result of the discovery that it is worth while rechecking by new direct experience, and not necessarily trusting the race experience from the past. I see it that way. That is my best definition.”
(The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, p. 185)
It was this drive in Feynman that led him to go beyond what NASA officials were telling him about the Challenger accident and to investigate beyond that himself. There is intellectual value in questioning received knowledge and testing it out.
Feynman actually left two legacies. One is within physics.
The other is for the ordinary person who is interested in learning. He was a model of a lifelong learner who took the time to develop new skills and knowledge. Being a lifelong learner probably contributed to the enthusiasm he manifested in teaching. He also advocated for intellectually responsible approaches to knowledge, in his emphasis on working from first principles. In a day in which fake news seems to be de rigueur, Feynman’s approach is a refreshing relief and the basis for the kind of critical thinking skills our students need.
- Feynman, Richard P. (1968) ‘What Is Science?’ The Physics Teacher Vol. 7, issue 6, pp. 313-320.
- Feynman, Richard P. (1985). Ralph Leighton, ed. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character. W. W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0-393-01921-7.
- Feynman, Richard P. (1988). Ralph Leighton, ed. What Do You Care What Other People Think?: Further Adventures of a Curious Character. W. W. Norton & Co.
- Feynman, Richard P. (1999). Robbins, Jeffrey, ed. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Perseus Books.
- Leighton, Ralph. (2000) Tuva or Bust!: Richard Feynman’s Last Journey. WW Norton & Company.
For more information:
You can also find videos of Feynman teaching on YouTube.
Feature image courtesy of Flickr, Nick J Webb.