How childhood wonder and curiosity shapes brilliance: Excerpts from Richard Feynman's Life
I’ve been long fascinated with the life and times of brilliant scientists and thought leaders like Richard Feynman. In this week’s articles, I’ll try a spin on the now-famous 3-2-1 writing format, where I’ll share 3 ideas, 2 quotes, and 1 question.
I’ve used excerpts below from the book “The Beat of a Different Drum: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman” by Jagdish Mehra
01 Early childhood influences are more powerful than we admit
Melville would play this game over and over again. He would play other games with the tiles as well. ‘He would say, “Now we put a white one, now a blue one.” Sometimes I’d want to put two blue ones together and he would say, “No, No. There must be a white one now.” My mother would say to him, “Now let the boy put a blue one.” He would say, “No, we have to get him to understand patterns.” This was the only thing I could do at that age, to think about patterns and to recognize them as being interesting. After a short time with this game, I could do extremely elaborate patterns. Once I got to pay attention, I would put two blues, two whites, and so on, and repeat the pattern. So my father started as early as he could to interest me in a kind of mathematics, sort of shadow mathematics.’?
Even a simple focus on patterns at an early age can induce a love for mathematics in the future. Remember to be careful and thoughtful from an early age on activities and interactions. Check out this great page by Montessori educator Sruthi Yadlapati on how to do these things.
02 Elementary School is when foggy ideas start to become curious obsessions
‘My father had interested me in patterns from the beginning. Then, later, we would turn over the stones and watch the ants carry the little white baby ants down deeper in the holes. We would look at the worms. It was all part of playing. When we would go for walks, we would look at things all the time, and then my father would tell me about things of every kind: the stars, bugs, geometry. He was always telling me interesting things: the way the birds fly, the way the oceans work. I don’t know why, but there was always talking.
He had already taught me: “See that bird? It’s a Spencer’s warbler.” (I knew he didn’t know the real name.) “Well, in Italian it’s Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it is Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it’s Chunglong-tah, and in Japanese it is Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you are finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the world. You'll know about the humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts.” I learned very early from my father the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.’
But when he would tell me about looking at the birds, it was not just to look at them but to see what they were doing. As an example, he said, “Look, see the birds walking around there. They seem to be pecking their feathers all the time. Why do you think they do that?” And I said, “Well, I don’t know.” I was a kid of ten or eleven. I said, “Maybe their feathers get ruffled when they are flying.” I made an attempt at an explanation. He then said, “If that were the case, they would peck more when they just landed after they flew. And after they got straightened out, walking around, they wouldn’t peck so much. So let’s see, watch those that land and then see how long they go on pecking and whether or not they peck in their feathers at the same rate.” After a while we discovered that indeed they did. So it was not due to a need to straighten out their feathers just after flying. You see, he had made a little experiment, learning how to observe and discuss. But he finally had to tell me that the reason why they pecked their feathers was that they had little lice,that in their feathers they had protein scales that would fall off, and the lice eat that stuff. And, as a matter of fact, in between the joints of the louse leg, there is a kind of grease and, in there, there is a tiny red spider-like mite, very tiny, that eats that, and now that mite is so successful, it doesn’t digest all its food very well, so it emits a lot of sugar at the rear end. And in that there is a bacterium or something, which eats that. And then he said that “wherever there is any source of food, where there is any way to live, something will find a way to live there.”
We often shy away from explaining things at this age. Either because we’re too exhausted to have these conversations or think the child is too young. Their minds are more malleable than we give credit for. Pushing them to think deeper, explaining complex words, simplifying concepts and sharing in the joy and curiosity are powerful ways of getting children to wonder and pursue their wonder.
03 High School is when curiosity can turn to passion
After the tutoring session was over, Richard would talk to Mr Maskett, who became very interested in him and helped him a great deal. What Richard talked to him about was the following. He had discovered a formula for doing the following problem. Suppose you want to add 1 plus 2 plus 3 plus 4, and so on, up to some number. He had discovered that with an odd number of terms, like 1+2+3 is 6,1+2+3+4+5 is 15,a certain rule worked: the rule was that you multiply the odd number by half of one more than the odd number. Eventually, Richard also found a rule for an even number of terms: multiply half the even number by one more than the even number. He made up the following problem.
Suppose a theater has a new idea. Instead of charging a definite amount for the movie, it charged 1 cent from the first person who comes, 2 cents from the next one, 3 cents from the third one, and so on, until 100 people come. How much money will he collect from this scheme in the movie? Richard showed this problem to Mr Maskett, and he showed him how the two rules Richard had could be made into one: you multiply the number by one more than the number and then divide by 2. Richard had two rules, and was now excited to have just one rule. But Mr Maskett was also very pleased by the fact that the little boy had cooked this thing up. So he would always tell him little things and help him along; he kept on encouraging Richard in various ways to discover things.
Feynman recalled: ‘It was rather sad. He went into teaching in high school. Those days were different. Given the Depression, it was difficult to achieve one’s goals. He was teaching this physics class, which I attended; he understood it well all the way. He wasn’t like William LeSeur who didn’t know much, or Joseph Johnson who knew the stuff from many years ago. He knew more than he was teaching.’’ Abram Bader remembered Richard, too: ‘Feynman became my student in the fourth and final year of his high school. I had heard a bit about the unusually bright boy from his chemistry teacher, Joe Johnson. Johnson and Feynman had worked together on a project to measure the size of the molecules, using the thickness of a thin layer of oil. I was about to start teaching a class in honor’s physics and looked forward to having a group in which all the students would be bright. After my first day I realized that Feynman was sui generis. In only one day he stood out as the top student in a class of top students.’? One day, when they were discussing the index of refraction, Abram Bader called Richard down from the class and told him that he was making too much noise and was being a disruptive influence on the other students. Bader realized, however, that this was because he found the lesson too easy, so he gave him a book to read by himself and sent him to the back of the class. Feynman recalled: ‘So he gave me a book; he knew that I had learned calculus from other books. I was a senior then. He gave me a book entitled Woods’s Advanced calculus,'° which had Fourier series, Bessel functions, gamma functions, wondrous things that came out of calculus and all the juice, wonderful stuff. What a good time I had back there with that book! What wondrous things I learned and played with! So that was a wonderful thing he did to me!’’
Abram Bader had done immeasurable good to Feynman by doing these two things: first by asking him to study Woods’s book on calculus, and second by telling him about the principle of least action. By being exposed so early to the methods of advanced calculus, Feynman became a great expert on doing any integral if it could be done at all. The principle of least action became a kind of ‘mantra’ for him; in all the great problems of theoretical physics that he treated, he invoked this principle wherever he could. This principle became his very own in every way.?
Imagine that - stoking an interest and allowing students to explore and go crazy. It may not work for physics or maths for all students but every student has something that is the equivalent of what physics was to Feynman.
1 Big Question
What is one decision you can make for your child today, that will allow your child to pursue their hobby or passion for the next 1 year?
Until next week,
Have a playful weekend,