Lessons from RP Feynman

Quote of the Day

Our Richie? The world’s smartest man? God help us!

— Lucille Feynman, mother of RP Feynman. This was her reaction to the statement in Omni Magazine (1979) that her son was "Smartest Man in the World." No man has a brain cell in the eyes of his wife, mother, or sister. Some things never change.


Figure 1: Richard P. Feynman, 1965 Nobel Prize Winner in Physics (Source).

Figure 1: Richard P. Feynman,
1965 Nobel Prize Winner in
Physics (Source).

There is almost a cottage industry in RP Feynman quotes and stories.  For an engineer, there is much gold to mined in his approach to problem-solving. Long ago, I read his book Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman, and I have treated him as source of inspiration ever since.   I was drawn to the joy he expressed about solving problems, and his skill in sharing that joy.

As you would expect for a person of this intellect, his career is surrounded by some controversy. Here are three articles worth reading to get a feel for his legacy.

As a mere mortal, I really cannot duplicate his problem-solving approach, but I can learn from it. I wanted to share the parts of his problem-solving approach that I work to emulate – admittedly poorly.

His Problem Solving Lessons

You need to work problems

Feynman said:

You do not know anything unless you have practiced.

I often hear people say that "I read the book, but I cannot solve any of the problem." Reading is different than understanding – understanding requires much more engagement.

You need to work lots of problems

Feynman's last writing on a blackboard said:

Know how to solve every problem that has been solved. What I cannot create, I do not understand.

This is a tough one for a mere mortal, but I work on problems all the time to help retain my proficiency.


Feynman said:

To do high, real good physics work you do need absolutely solid lengths of time, so that when you’re putting ideas together which are vague and hard to remember, it’s very much like building a house of cards and each of the cards is shaky, and if you forget one of them the whole thing collapses again. You don’t know how you got there and you have to build them up again, and if you’re interrupted and kind of forget half the idea of how the cards went together—your cards being different-type parts of the ideas, ideas of different kinds that have to go together to build up the idea—the main point is, you put the stuff together, it’s quite a tower and it’s easy [for it] to slip, it needs a lot of concentration—that is, solid time to think—and if you’ve got a job in administrating anything like that, then you don’t have the solid time.

I believe that multi-tasking is a myth. I work hard to focus my mental energy, but it is hard when you are in a management position. Sometimes it is hard to get thirty seconds of uninterrupted thought, but you have to find a way to focus.

Work to develop you own point of view

Feynman said:

Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation. Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.


Do not read so much, look about you and think of what you see there.

I regularly read statements by experts that later prove to be wrong. I have made some doozies. In fact, I just found an error in a published derivation performed by one of today's best electrical engineers. I contacted him, he immediately saw the error, and thanked me for helping him out. We all make mistakes.

Here is a good essay on the topic.

Always look for simpler viewpoints

Here is a quote from Feynman on his inability to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi Dirac statistics:

You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it.

It is always important to simplify things as much as possible. When I worked at HP, they used to provide a bounty for bugs found just before code release. The champion bug finder used to read the source code and look for complex code sections. He said that complexity usually meant that the software engineer did not really understand what he was doing and that bugs were likely in that section of code.

I always review my solutions to see if there is an easier way to get the same or approximately same result. There is a lot of insight to be gained from reviewing your results.

I should also mention that I spend quite a bit of time on understanding the problem statement. I constantly restate the problem in alternative ways to try to gain insight into what the critical factors are.

Keep a list of problems you have not been able to solve

Feynman said:

You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, 'How did he do it? He must be a genius!'

I keep of list of problems that have bothered me for a long time – decades in some case. I regularly review the list and a few drop off every year. Unfortunately, a few get added every year as well. The list never shrinks.

Give yourself a break

Feynman said:

I know how hard it is to get to really know something; how careful you have to be about checking the experiments; how easy it is to make mistakes and fool yourself. I know what it means to know something.

Getting to really know something is not easy. For example, it took me a long time to become comfortable as a circuit designer, and I continue to learn a scary amount on a regular basis.

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