Tuesday, November 10, 2009

3 Lessons Richard Feynman's Father Taught Him

Richard Feynman is one of my favorite people. And he had a wonderful father. Below are some excerpts, from "What Do You Care What Other People Think?", showing what Feynman's childhood was like:
When I was just a little kid, very small in a highchair, my father brought home a lot of little bathroom tiles--seconds--of different colors. We played with them, my father setting them up vertically on my highchair like dominoes, and I would push one end so they would all go down.

Then after a while, I'd help set them up. Pretty soon, we're setting them up in a more complicated way: two white tiles and a blue tile, two white tiles and a blue tile, and so on. When my mother saw that she said, "Leave the poor child alone. If he wants to put a blue tile, let him put a blue tile." 
But my father said, "No, I want to show him what patterns are like and how interesting they are. It's a kind of elementary mathematics." So he started very early to tell me about the world and how interesting it is.
Feynman's family had the Encyclopedia Britannica (remember those?) and his dad would sit Richard on his lap, and read to him.
We would be reading, say, about dinosaurs. It would be talking about the Tyrannosaurus rex and it would say something like, "This dinosaur is twenty-five feet high and its head is six feet across." 
My dad would stop reading and say, "Now, let's see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard, he would be tall enough to put his head through our window up here." (We were on the second floor.) "But his head would be too wide to fit in the window." 
Everything he read me he would translate as best he could into some reality. 
It was very exciting and very, very interesting to think there were animals of such magnitude--and that they all died out, and that nobody knew why. I wasn't frightened that there would be one coming in my window as a consequence of this. But I learned from my father to translate: everything I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it's really saying.
Of course, Feynman's father taught him more than how to translate from words to reality. He also taught him to go from reality to words.
My father taught me to notice things. One day I was playing with an "express wagon," a little wagon with a railing around it. It had a ball in it, and when I pulled the wagon I noticed something about the way the ball moved. I went to my father and said, "Say, Pop, I noticed something. When I pull the wagon, the ball rolls to the back of the wagon. And when I'm pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon. Why is that? 
"That, nobody knows," he said. "The general principle is that things which are moving tend to keep on moving, and things which are standing still tend to stand still, unless you push them hard. This tendency is called 'inertia,' but nobody knows why it's true." Now, that's a deep understanding. He didn't just give me the name. 

He went on to say, "If you look from the side, you'll see that it's the back of the wagon that you're pulling against the ball, and the ball stands still. As a matter of fact, from the friction it starts to move forward a little bit in relation to the ground. It doesn't move back." 
I ran back to the little wagon and set the ball up again and pulled the wagon. Looking sideways, I saw that indeed he was right. Relative to the sidewalk, it moved forward a bit. 

That's the way I was educated by my father, with those kinds of examples and discussions. It has motivated me for the rest of my life, and make me interested in all the sciences. (It just happens I do physics better.) 
I've been caught, so to speak--like someone who was given something wonderful when he was a child, and he's always looking for it again. I'm always looking, like a child, for the wonders I know I'm going to find--maybe not every time, but every once in a while.

For more by me on Feynman, check out "The Curious Life of Richard Feynman" and "3 Things I Learned Off the Beaten Track with Richard Feynman."


  1. That book firmed up in my mind that I would never be the type of parent that would shut down a "why." My kids give up long before I ever do.

  2. Thanks for the comment. The way you put that is correct too--i.e., never being the type of parent that shuts down a "why."

    The value of a "let's see" in answer to any question doesn't shut down the sense of wonder typical in a child.

    And, ultimately, I think that matters more than having detailed answers or being able to point out interesting observations without fail--not that there's anything wrong with these!

    If the goal is as you stated it, then it it achievable by all. And I--strike that--people don't have to be as knowledgeable as Feynman's father to raise an inquisitive child who is enthralled by all the wonders of reality.

  3. "Surely your joking" and the other one (forgot its name, I'll have to look it up) are indeed two of the best readings I ever had. Letting your kid sense the world and pronounce the rules (the math) by himself is an amazing experience.

  4. Unless you're thinking of What Do You Care What Other People Think?, which the above excerpts came from, the title you're searching for is probably The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. I'm a fan of all three.

  5. Hello there :) thanks for such a great blog!! Richard Feynman is my idol and my hero. You can learn almost everything from his books. From make a think, relationship, to how to raise a baby! :)

  6. Thanks for that comment SimplyDelish. And I agree. You can a learn a lot from his books. There's some especially good advice from him on raising kids in Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track.

  7. Just came across your blog.

    I read part of "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman." I didn't get to finish it, but I enjoyed what I did read. I've already read essays by Mr. Feynman and he was a very intelligent, independent thinker. I would like to read more about him and by him when I can.

    I may have to read one of his books and do a book review on my blog, which you can find here (I do reviews of non-fiction and fiction books from and Objectivist perspective).