Richard Feynman, His Life, and the Art of Solving Important Problems

The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to… No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.”. — Richard Feynman

I already have a clear picture of what the library in my dream house will look like. It will be filled with many interesting and classic books including Harvard Classics collection, Ibn Battuta’s Travelogue, and of course, Feynman Lectures on Physics series.

It was at a book event at Senayan, Jakarta, back then when I was 17 years old. It was the first time I came across a scientist named Richard Feynman. I picked up one of his books, a translated version of “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! ” with its cover of a man riding a jet in cartoon. I expected it to be a funny, not-so-serious book with a little science on the side. Although I wasn’t entirely wrong, the book is far better than I thought.

Feynman is an incredible example of many things: he was brilliant, he was a fantastic educator, he was thoroughly unconventional and unconcerned about what others thought of him. But perhaps, most of all, his biography is a lesson that success doesn’t need to be a dangerous business — and that what I learn from him the most. A result example of how the wisdom of a man and an unstoppable mind of child collides and become one.

Richard Feynman lived from 1918 to 1988. He made his mark as an original genius, starting 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 much-loved professor of undergraduate physics at Caltech.

Feynman is one of the best examples of a man with endless childlike curiosity. His kind of “skill theory”, a philosophy on learning things that known being hard to master, help me through on keeping me optimistic as a person.

“Right. I don’t believe in the idea that there are a few peculiar people capable of understanding math, and the rest of the world is normal. Math is a human discovery, and it’s no more complicated than humans can understand. I had a calculus book once that said, ‘What one fool can do, another can.’ What we’ve been able to work out about nature may look abstract and threatening to someone who hasn’t studied it, but it was fools who did it, and in the next generation, all the fools will understand it. There’s a tendency to pomposity in all this, to make it deep and profound.” – Feynman, Omni 1979

On referring to his tested IQ, he said, “Winning a Nobel Prize is no big deal, but winning it with an IQ of 124 is really something.”

Feynman often started projects on whims, and took them to unexpected heights before switching to something new:

Becoming a professional artist. After Feynman bet an artist friend that the friend couldn’t teach him how to draw, Feynman eventually went on to practice well enough that he was selling his artwork.

Picking locks on the Manhattan Project. To pass time during wartime atomic bomb project, Feynman would pick the locks of his colleagues. This got out of hand so that his supervisors thought there might even be a security breach before it was revealed to be Feynman fooling around.

Feynman was a curious character - his phrase, and the double meaning was intentional. He was never content with what he knew or what other people knew. He taught himself how to fix radios, pick locks, speak Portuguese, play the bongos and decipher Mayan hieroglyphics. He pursued knowledge without prejudice, studying the tracking ability of ants in his bathtub and learning enough biology to study the mutation of bacteriophages.

And above all of those things, Feynman was very good at solving tough problems, and that he believed, “What one fool can do, another can too.” He has a kind of special algorithm when dealing with tough problems. Murray Gell-Mann, a colleague of Feynman, call it “The Feynman Algorithm.”

The Feynman Algorithm:

  1. Write down the problem.
  2. Think real hard.
  3. Write down the solution.

Perhaps it is worth noting that even if this method did work reliably for Feynman, there is no reason to expect that it will work for everyone. But still, considering this algorithm played the most significant role in his success made it worth to think about or even a skill that worth to be trained.

Daniel Hillis offered one perspective on Feynman’s motivations:

“For Richard, figuring out these problems was a kind of a game. He always started by asking very basic questions like, ‘What is the simplest example?’ or ‘How can you tell if the answer is right?’ He asked questions until he reduced the problem to some essential puzzle that he thought he would be able to solve. Then he would set to work, scribbling on a pad of paper and staring at the results. While he was in the middle of this kind of puzzle solving he was impossible to interrupt. ‘Don’t bug me. I’m busy,’ he would say without even looking up. Eventually he would either decide the problem was too hard (in which case he lost interest), or he would find a solution (in which case he spent the next day or two explaining it to anyone who listened). In this way he worked on problems in database searches, geophysical modeling, protein folding, analyzing images, and reading insurance forms.”

Feynman uses his so-called learning technique nearly in everything that he touches.

He made islands of practical knowledge in the oceans of personal ignorance that remained: knowing nothing about drawing, he taught himself to make perfect freehand circles on the blackboard; knowing nothing about music, he bet his girlfriend that he could teach himself to play one piece, “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” and for once failed dismally.

Piece from Richard Feynman’s little-known sketches, edited by his daughter..Piece from Richard Feynman’s little-known sketches, edited by his daughter..

There are many biographies which illustrate the strengths and foibles of the person involved: you see how they accomplished great things, but also the price they paid to have such personality to achieve it. Feynman, however, is different. His curiosity and spontaneous engagement, combined with his level of accomplishment make him a figure to aspire to be, even if it’s impossible to emulate.

This was how Feynman approached all knowledge: what can I know for sure, and 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 in all of his intellectual work.

It also made me realize that brilliant thinkers are clear thinkers, and they understand the basics at a very, very fundamental level.

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

In a letter dated February 3rd, 1966, Feynman timelessly describes “worthwhile problems.” The letter is part of a chain of communication that started with a former student, Koichi Manom, who had written to extend his congratulations. Richard Feynman asked him what he was doing. Koichi responded: “studying the Coherence theory with some applications to propagation of electromagnetic waves through turbulent atmosphere … a humble and down-to-earth type of problem.”

Dear Koichi,

I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is worthwhile.

You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. Student (Albert Hibbs) whose thesis was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem instead of letting you find your own; and left you with a wrong idea of what is interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely those problems you see you may do something about). I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to correct it a little.

I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed. For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or, how elastic properties of crystals depend on the forces between the atoms in them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio knobs). Or, how neutrons diffuse out of Uranium. Or, the reflection of electromagnetic waves from films coating glass. The development of shock waves in explosions. The design of a neutron counter. Why some elements capture electrons from the L-orbits, but not the K-orbits. General theory of how to fold paper to make a certain type of child’s toy (called flexagons). The energy levels in the light nuclei. The theory of turbulence (I have spent several years on it without success). Plus all the “grander” problems of quantum theory.

No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s ideals are.

Best of luck and happiness.

Sincerely,

Richard P. Feynman.

Knowing a glance of Feynman’s life has given me a lot of lessons, one that I think the most important is that you should protect your childhood curiosity.

You should have wisdom of an adult man, but never lose the urge and pleasure in finding things out.