Richard Feynman (1918 – 1988) was a professor, educator, writer, and physicist who won the Nobel Prize in 1965 for his work in quantum electrodynamics (demonstrating that history could and does have all possible histories and eventualities). Most of all, he was a superb lecturer with a dramatic sense of personhood.
I have always been very one-sided about science and when I was younger I concentrated almost all my effort on it. I didn’t have time to learn and I didn’t have much patience with what’s called humanities […]. I tried my best to avoid somehow learning anything and working at it. It was only afterwards, when I got older, that I got more relaxed, that I’ve spread out a little bit […]. I have limited intelligence and I use it in a particular direction.
The Pleasures of Finding Things Out is the collection of Feynman’s “limited intelligence,” including essays on beauty, the future of computing, winning the Nobel Prize, working on the atomic bomb, and the juxtaposition of science and religion.1
It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe beyond man, to think of what it means to be without man – as it was for the great part of its long history, and as it is in the great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of the universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is rarely described. 2
Echoing biologist Rachel Carson, who wrote that delight in the small and inconspicuous should be taught and shared, Feynman delighted in the contagion of wonder and thought it should be taught as a core aspect of knowledge.3
As Feynman skips along, knowledge swinging at his sides like an overflowing bucket, there is something amiss. His writing is easy, descriptive but always encased in his personhood. What I mean by that is Feynman himself—his passions, habits, interests, insatiable wonder—is inseparable from the knowledge he imparts.
Throughout The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, I sense Feynman is someone I’d want to hear lecture but perhaps not have dinner with. He’d require too much oxygen. To call him emotionally shallow is pejorative and incorrect. Although, he does admit to a lifelong aversion of humanities, and the limits of his emotional intelligence do steer him into some complicated moments.
On the atomic bomb:
After the thing went off and we heard about it, there was tremendous excitement at Los Alamos. Everybody had parties, we all ran around. I sat on the end of a jeep and beat drums and so on. […] I returned to civilization shortly after that and went to Cornell to teach, and my first impression was a very strange one and I can’t understand it anymore but I felt very strongly then. I’d sat in a restaurant in New York, for example, and I looked out at the building and I would think, you know, how much the radius of the Hiroshima bomb damage was and so forth…
How can someone so aware of the universe’s complexities and of the vagaries of life, someone who thinks so independently, meet the realities of the bomb with such, dare I say, surprise? Did it not occur to him what he was working on? What it would do? Is he normalizing the absurd?
An interesting apposite is the war poems of Wilfred Owen, a man who believed we lost our humanity when we failed to feel sorrow at death and who was one of the first poets to write about the atrocity—not the glory—of war.
“I have limited intelligence and I use it in a particular direction,” Feynman admits casually. I won’t be too strict on him, although I do find his work—his persona—more difficult to connect to than, say, Oliver Sacks, a neurologist with gentle gravity and searching self-awareness.4
But as a champion of knowledge, of wonder, of knowing, Feynman is stupendously unique. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is a great place to start. I dare you to read his writing without feeling his velocity of thought.
The world looks so different after learning science. For example, the trees are made of air, primarily. When they are burned, they go back to the air, and in the flaming heat is released the flaming heat of the sun which was bound in to convert the air into trees, and in the ash is a small remnant of the part which did not come from air, that came from the solid earth, instead. These are beautiful things, and the content of science is wonderfully full of them.
Enjoy Feynman’s vast and varied thoughts in the company of the sparkling wit and creations of Jorge Luis Borges, an Argentine writer who was as metaphorical and philosophical as Feynman was rational. A fine pairing that illuminates the disparate avenues to knowledge.