Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Feynman on Humility

Another memorable passage in an audiobook of Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman.  I promise I’ll stop talking about Richard Feynman soon… I’m just so very, very impressed this time through his memoir, Surely You’re Joking (remember, I only listen to it when I’m doing laundry, so it’s taken a while to get through it).

Where I am right now, he’s lamenting the fact that he used to drop in on local high schools to chat with kids there about physics, maybe a handful of them (“about relativity, or whatever they asked me about”)… but after his Nobel prize, he couldn’t do that anymore.  The first time he tried, they filled the auditorium with 300 kids.  “It was a mess.”

“I got that shock about 3 or 4 times, being an idiot [!] and not catching on right away.”  Invited to Berkeley, he prepared a rather technical talk, but arrived to find a huge crowd of people who knew nothing about physics.  “I know there’s not that many people in Berkeley who know the level at which I prepared my talk.”

Finally, he realized what to do – make up a dull-sounding title and a dull-sounding professor’s name, and then only the kids who were genuinely interested in physics would come.  Now this is unique anyway because so far in his memoir he has emphasized that he almost always tells the truth, almost to a fault.  But I can imagine he was driven to this because there was simply no way he could reach the audience he was trying to reach with the Nobel hanging around his neck, so to speak, like the proverbial albatross.

So, billed as Professor Henry Warren from the University of Washington, giving a talk about The Structure of the Proton in Room D102.  On the day and time, he showed up and told the kids gathered there that Professor Warren was unable to make it, so he’d come instead.  But the kids ultimately got in trouble when faculty advisor found out, and he had to call and fall on his sword over the incident, explaining that the trick had been his idea.  “I’m very sorry, please excuse me, blah, blah, blah.”

“That’s the kind of stuff I’ve got to go through on account of that damn prize.”

Just one more, if you’ll indulge me.  Further on,  he’s talking about the reception and general pomp & circumstance surrounding the prize, and he says he was raised by his father, who was in the uniform business.  “He was in the uniforms business, so he knew the difference between a man with a uniform on, and the uniform off – it’s the same man.”

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