Friday, 20 February 2015

Book Reflection: "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynmann!"

I requested the book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynmann! from the library on a whim after seeing it recommended as one of the best books about a scientist. It is an odd read. Basically, it consists of transcripts of stories told to Ralph Leighton by the Nobel Prize winning scientist, Richard Feynmann. He had a pretty interesting life, including working on the atom bomb during World War 2. He was also clearly loved telling a story (also was a bit of a smartass and had some fairly dodgy attittudes towards women by modern standards). What surprised me was that, in addition to his science, he clearly loved teaching and had some strong opinions about it. In particular, the chapter about his experiences on a committee choosing a maths textbook for schools is eye-opening and pretty depressing. I found myself noting down some of the things he had to say (below). Not a perfect book but I felt it was a fascinating glimpse into the life of an extraordinary person.

"I don't know what's the matter with people: they don't learn by understanding; they learn by some other way - by rote, or something. Their knowledge is so fragile! (p36-7)

"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." (p71)

"So because I was self-taught using that book, I had peculiar methods of doing integrals....I got a great reputation for doing integrals, only because my box of tools was different from everybody else's...." (p87)

"The trouble with computers is you play with them. They are so wonderful." (in Los Alamos 1940s)  p 127

"Then they came to work, and what they had to do was work on IBM machines - punching holes, numbers that they didn't understand. I said that the first thing there has to be is that these technical guys know what we are doing....Complete transformation! They began to invent ways of doing it better." p128

"If you're teaching a class, you can think about the elementary things you know very well. These things are kind of fun and delightful. It doesn't do any harm to think them over again. Is there a better way to present them? Are there any new thoughts you can make about them? The elementary things are easy to think about; if you can't think of a new thought, no harm done; what you thought about it before is good enough for the class. If you do think of something new, you're rather pleased that you have a new way of looking at it. The questions of students are often the source of new research." p 166

"I finally figured out that the students had memorized everything, but that they didn't know what anything meant. When they heard "light that is reflected from a medium with an index," they didn't know that it meant a material such as water. They didn't know that the "direction of the light" is the direction in which you see something when you are looking at it, and so on. Everything was entirely memorise, yet nothing could be translated into meaningful words." p212-3
 Note: Feynman memorised things like log table that enabled him to do calculations in his head very quickly by thinking about numbers that were close, ie approximation. The difference is that he UNDERSTOOD the maths. Having the facts to hand just enabled him to work more easily and to spot patterns.
"I taught a course at the engineering school on mathematical methods in physics, in which I tried to show how to solve problems by trial and error... After the lecture some students came up to me in a little delegation, and told me that I didn't understand the backgrounds that they have, that they can study without doing the problems, that they have learned arithmetic, and that this stuff was beneath them....One other thing I could never get them to do was to ask questions. Finally, a student explained it to me: "If I ask a question during the lecture, afterwards everybody will be telling me, 'What are you wasting our time for in the class? We are trying to learn something. And you're stopping him by asking a question.'" p214-5

"I had 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." p281

New maths
"The purpose was to enhance mathematics for the children who found it dull.
I'll give you an example:They would talk about different bases of numbers - five, six, and so on - to show the possibilities. That would be interesting for a kid who could understand base ten - something to entertain his mind. But what they had turned it into, in these books, was that every child had to learn another base! And then the usual horror would come: "Translate these numbers, which are written in base seven, to base five." Translating from one base to another is an utterly useless thing. If you can do it, maybe it's entertaining; if you can't do it, forget it. There's no point to it.
Anyhow, I'm looking at all these books, all these books and none of them has said anything about using arithmetic in science. If there are any examples on the use of arithmetic at all (most of the time it's this abstract new modern nonsense), they are about things like buying stamps." p292-3

"I think ordinary people with common-sense ideas are intimidated by this pseudo-science. A teacher who has some good idea of how to teach her children to read is forced by the school system to do it some other way - or is even fooled by the school system into thinking that her method is not necessarily a good one." p 340

"It's a kind of scientific integrity, a principle of scientific thought that corresponds to a kind of utter honesty- a kind of leaning over backwards. For example, if you're doing an experiment, you should report everything that you think might make it invalid - not only what you think is right about it: other causes that could explain your results; and things you thought of that you've eliminated by some other experiment, and how they worked - to make sure the other fellow can tell they have been eliminated.
Details that could throw doubt on your interpretation must be given, if you know them. You must do the best you can - if you know anything at all wrong, or possibly wrong - to explain it....
In summary, the idea is to give all of the information to help others to judge the value of your contribution; not just the information that leads to judgement in one particular direction or another." p341

Feynman, Richard P. (1992) "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynmann!" Adventures of a Curious Character as told to Ralph Leighton. London: Vintage Books

No comments:

Post a Comment