“Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!”
W.W. Norton and Company, New York, 1985
I made some other observations while dreaming. Apart from always asking myself, “Am I really dreaming in color?” I wondered, “how accurately do you see something?”
So MIT was good, but Slater was right to warn me to go to another school for my graduate work. And I often advise my students the same way. Learn what the rest of the world is like. The variety is worthwhile.
The electron is a theory that we use; it is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call it real.
Before the first class meeting, the guys who had invited me to take the course wanted to show me some things under the microscope. They had some plant cells in there, and you could see some little green spots called chloroplasts (they make sugar when light shines on them) circulating around. I looked at them and then looked up: “How do they circulate? What pushes them around?” I asked.
Feynman as a graduate student at Princeton decides to take a biology course.
Nobody knew. It turned out that it was not understood at that time. So right away I found out something about biology: it was very easy to find a question that was very interesting, and that nobody knew the answer to. In physics you had to go a little deeper before you could find an interesting question that people didn’t know.
When the course began, Harvey started out by drawing a great, big picture of a cell on the blackboard and labeling all the things that are in a cell. He then talked about them, and I understood most of what he said.
After the lecture, the guy who had invited me said, “Well, how did you like it?”
“Just fine,” I said. “The only part I didn’t understand was the part about lecithin. What is lecithin?”
The guy begins to explain in a monotonous voice: “All living creatures, both plant and animal, are made of little brick-like objects called ‘cells’ …”
“Listen,” I said, impatiently, “I know all that; otherwise I wouldn’t be in the course. What is lecithin?”
“I don’t know.”
I had to report on papers along with everyone else, and the first one I was assigned was on the effect of pressure on cells-Harvey chose the topic for me because it had something that had to do with physics. Although I understood what I was doing, I (p.72) mispronounced everything when I read my paper, and the class was always laughing hysterically when I talk about “blastospheres” instead of “blastomeres,” or some other such thing.
The next paper selected for me was by Adrian and Bronk. They demonstrated that nerve impulses were sharp, single-pulse phenomena. They had done experiments with cats in which they had measured voltages on nerves.
I began to read the paper. It kept talking about extensors and flexors, the gastrocnemius muscle, and so on. This and that muscle were named, but I hadn’t the foggiest idea of where they were located in relation to the nerves or to the cat. So I went to the librarian in the biology section and asked her if she could find me a map of the cat.
“A map of the cat, sir?” she asked, horrified. “You mean a zoological chart!” From then on there were rumors about some dumb biology graduate student who is looking for a “map of the cat.”
When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles.
The other students in the class interrupt me: “We know all that!”
“Oh,” I say, “you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you’ve had four years of biology.” They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.
Then I held up the elementary physics textbook they were using. “There are no experimental results mentioned anywhere in this book, except in one place where there’s a ball, rolling down an inclined plane, in which it says how far the ball got after one second, two seconds, three seconds, and so on. The numbers have ‘errors’ in them – that is, if you look at them, you think you’re looking at experimental results, because the numbers are a little above, or a little below, the theoretical values. The book even talks about having to correct the experimental errors – very fine. The trouble is, when you calculate the value of the acceleration constant from these values, you get the right answer. But the ball rolling down an inclined plane, if it is actually done, has an inertia to get it to turn, and will, if you do the experiment, produce five sevenths of the right answer, because of the extra energy needed to go into the rotation of the ball. Therefore this single example of experimental ‘results’ is obtained from a fake experiment. Nobody had rolled such a ball, or they would never have gotten those results!
“I have discovered something else,” 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. Brrrrrrrup – 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’ve only told what the 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 to that too. Nobody knows (p.218) why. The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence.”‘ Then someone will go home and try it. Then there’s an experience of nature.”I used that example to show them, but it didn’t make any difference where I would have put my finger in the book; it was like that everywhere.
Finally, I said that I couldn’t see how anyone could be educated by the self-propagating system in which people pass exams, and teach others to pass exams, but nobody knows anything.
There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read – something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on that list. I have this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”
So I stopped – at random – and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read.”
There was only one thing that happened at that meeting that was pleasant or amusing. At this conference, every word that every guy said at the plenary session was so important that they had a stenotypist there, typing every Goddamn thing. Somewhere on the second day the stenotypist came up to me and said, “What profession are you? Surely not a professor.”“I am a professor,” I said.
Feynman attends a conference organized by and for progressives.
“Of physics – science.”
“Oh! That must be the reason,” he said.
“Reason for what?”
He said, “You see, I’m a stenotypist, and I type everything that is said here. Now, when the other fellas talk, I type what they say, but I don’t understand what they’re saying. But every time you get up to ask a question or to say something, I understand exactly what you mean – what the question is, and what you’re saying – so I thought you can’t be a professor!”
There were a lot of fools at that conference – pompous fools – and pompous fools drive me up the wall. Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools – guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus-pocus – THAT I CANNOT STAND! An ordinary fool isn’t a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible! And that’s what I got at the conference, a bunch of pompous fools, and I got very upset. I’m not going to get upset like that again, so I won’t participate in interdisciplinary conferences any more.
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 turned 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 had 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 had considerable discussion with the various people there about the reality of experiences. They argued that something is considered real, in experimental science, if the experience can be reproduced.