I was born not knowing, and have only had a little time to change that here and there.
This quote marks the start of James Gleick’s Genius, a 438-page biography and tribute to one of humanity’s greatest scientists – Richard Feynman.
Richard Feynman is a legend.
Ranked as one of the 10 greatest physicists of all time, Feynman contributed a staggering amount to our understanding of the universe.
Feynman taught himself trigonometry, analytic geometry, calculus, and a host of other advanced math topics at the age of 15. After high school, he attended MIT and afterward become the first person in history to attain a perfect score on the math and physics portions of the Princeton entrence exam.
In the 1940’s, he joined the Manhattan project at Los Alamos and helped the Allies to develop the atomic bomb before Nazi Germany could do it.
While it may not seem very grand, I like to mention the other thing Feynman did at Los Alamos. In those days, you could get the last two numbers of a safe’s combination lock very easily if it was left open. Feynman had a habit of taking the last two numbers of every open lock he came across – which turned out to be a good amount at Los Alamos.
Though he was only playing practical jokes, he essentially pointed out some pretty huge information security flaws – at the place where they were building the freaking atomic bomb. So I guess you could say he was an early security consultant in addition to being a genius physicist.
Once his work on the Manhattan Project was finished, Feynman went to Cornell University to teach theoretical physics.
After Cornel, he taught at CalTech, where he also did a ton of important work to advance the science of physics.
In the 1960’s, Feynman was appointed a member of the Royal Society – the same Royal Society that has, throughout history, been comprised of great thinkers such as Isaac Newton, Edmond Halley (after whom Halley’s comet is named), Lord Kelvin, and Albert Einstein.
Around the same time, Feynman wrote The Feynman Lectures on Physics, the brilliance of which cannot be overstated. If the Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica is the greatest physics book of all time, Feynman’s lectures are at least the greatest introductory ones (especially since Newton purposely made his hard to understand).
Later in life, Feynman helped NASA scientists to uncover the cause behind the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger.
The greatness of Feynman’s intellect and accomplishments is undisputed. Among his many accolades, he received:
- The Albert Einstein Award (1954)
- The Nobel Prize in Physics (1965)
- The National Medal of Science (1979)
However, the reason I admire Feynman so much has more to do with his teaching.
Feynman was an incredibly gifted teacher, and had a knack for showing students the beauty in science – much the way Bill Nye did for me as a kid. This amazing video does a great job of showing that:
Ever since discovering this video, I watch it at least once a day. It’s one of the reasons my interest in science has risen dramatically as of late; had my freshman Physics 101 teacher been Feynman, I might well have never majored in business.
Feynman’s sense of wonder and curiosity about how the world worked was absolutely inspiring. However, he also had a simple, raw desire to teach, which I admire so much.
Many elite schools that can boast about having celebrity faculty members often have a problem: the students there don’t feel like they get enough attention from said faculty members.
The reason for this should be obvious, and I think Zac Bissonnette put it best on page 118 of Debt-Free U:
“Here’s the thing: famous professors build their reputations primarily by publishing, and they’re not about to jeopardize that by wasting time teaching lowly undergrads.”
Richard Feynman was the complete opposite of that.
After the war, he rejected a job offer from the Institute for Advanced Study – a research center that, at the time, boasted an impressive faculty including Albert Einstein and Kurt Gödel.
Because there are no students there to teach.
Feynman loved explaining physics to his students, and he made it his utmost priority to explain it in a way that was clearly understandable to them. It is for this reason that The Feynman Lectures on Physics are so famous and loved.
In an academic climate where a scientist’s brilliance and the greatness of his accomplishments seems to be inversely proportional to his desire to teach, Feynman stands out as a bright ray of clarifying light.
There’s a damn good reason he’s been called The Great Explainer.
When Feynman began teaching at CalTech, the standard physics course put the subject of Atoms and Molecules near the end of the course’s curriculum. But, as he saw atoms as the fundamental beginning of his understanding of the universe, Feynman chose to tackle them first in his lectures.
He started his first lecture in 1961 with the following (now famous) words:
If, in some cataclysm, all of scientific knowledge were to be destroyed, and only one sentence passed on to the next generation of creatures, what statement would contain the most information in the fewest words?
I believe it is the atomic hypothesis (or the atomic fact, or whatever you wish to call it) 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.
In that one sentence, you will see, there is an enormous amount of information about the world, if just a little imagination and thinking are applied.
This is what Feynman considered to be the most important fact.
Come hell or high water, I certainly hope we’ll remember it and remember to pass it on.
If you’re interested in learning more about Richard Feynman, I highly recommend picking up two books:
- Genius, the biography of Feynman written by James Gleick
- Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!, a collection of stories from Feynman’s life (including the hilarious Los Alamos safe-cracking story I mentioned earlier), written by Feynman himself
Now, go out and learn some science!