richard feynman on parenting and more

A few days ago, Norm over at One Good Move started posting clips from a 1981 BBC interview with American physicist Richard Feynman. I’d heard of Feynman before, his work on Manhattan Project, his Nobel Prize, and the work he’d done on the committee charged with looking into the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger, but I had no idea what a personable, compelling and genuinely unique individual he was. I’ve watched each of the clips a few times now — especially the one in which he discusses the role his father played in his early education – and they’re really making an significant impact. (Among other things, they’re making me want to be an even better parent to Clementine.) If you get a chance, please check a few of them out, or, if you can make the time, watch the whole 40-minute interview, entitled “The Pleasure of Finding Out” over at Google Video. It really is brilliant stuff. Trust me.

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  1. Tony Buttons Esq.
    Posted April 19, 2006 at 10:25 am | Permalink

    He died in ’88. One wonders what his take on current events would be if he were still alive — peak oil, the cronyism in DC, the talk of using nuclear weapons against Iran, etc. His perspective would have been interesting.

  2. Ted Glass
    Posted April 19, 2006 at 3:50 pm | Permalink

    I like the honesty with which he talks about the evening the bomb fell on Japan. He doesn’t try to hide the fact that he was celebrating as all of those people across the Pacific were dying. It made me uncomfortable that he didn’t say that he was sorry for his role, but I respected his honesty.

  3. chris
    Posted April 19, 2006 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    I am a huge fan of Feynman. He is a fascinating person who defies the stereotypes common of physicists. What most appeals to me is his rebellion towards blind acceptance of popular theory but for students to create their own. Much the way he lived his life…unconventionally.

    I am almost afraid to see him discuss parenting as I know that whatever his advice is I am sure that I fail miserably. An interesting anecdote is that Feynman did not speak until almost 3…or so I’ve read.

    Another, when called by the Nobel committee to inform him he won (it was in the middle of the night because the time difference) he hung up on them.

    Finally, do you think he would approve of my letting my 4 yo daughter watch “Tommy”? She won’t let me change the channel.

    AND how ’bout that McClellan?!?!?!

  4. mark
    Posted April 19, 2006 at 10:31 pm | Permalink

    I want to write about McClellan tonight, but I don’t know if I’ll have time….

    As for the Fenyman clip, it’s not really that he’s laying down any rules about parenting. He just talks a bit about his father and the things he’d do to make learning fun, and relevant. It didn’t make me feel bad about my parenting so much as it reminded me that I have a real opportunity to help my daughter learn how to love learning.

  5. DM
    Posted April 20, 2006 at 11:43 am | Permalink

    Hey Mark-

    I highly recommend Freeman Dyson’s book ” Disturbing the Universe.” There is a whole chapter about Feynman. Freeman Dyson describes four days he spent with Feynman while traveling to Albuquerque ( Dyson had 2 weeks of free time before he was to go to the University of Michigan.)

    Here is a teaser paragraph:

    “DIck had his own view of the future of nuclear weapons. Two illusions were current at that time. The conservative illusion was that American leadership in development and production of these weapons could be maintained indefinitely and would give America lasting military and political supremacy. The liberal illusion was that when all governments became aware of the dangers of nuclear annihilation they would abandon war as an instrument of national policy. Either way, nuclear weapons would become in some sense a guarantee of perpetual peace. Dick believed in neither illusion. He thought that wars would continue to occur from time to time, and that nuclear weapons would be used. He felt we were fools to think that we deserved to get away scot-free after letting these weapons loose in the world. He expected that somebody would sooner or later come back to give us a taste of our own medicine. He saw no reason to believe that other countries would be wiser or kinder than we had been. He found it amazing that people would go on living calmly in places like New York as if Hiroshima had never happened. As we drove through Cleveland and St. Louis, he was measuring in his minds’s eye distances from ground zero, ranges of lethal radiation and blast and fire damage. His view of the future was bleak indeed. I felt as if I were taking a ride with Lot through Sodom and Gomorrah.”

    Dyson ( who is still alive ) wrote a number of first hand accounts of his relationship with other physicists that were involved with the development of nuclear weapons – Robert Oppenheimer, Edward Teller ( the inspiration for Dr. Strangelove and the man responsible for bringing us Thermo Nuclear Weapons ), Ted Taylor, etc. They are all very interesting people.

    They all seem to have struggled with their decisions to work on nuclear weapons ( with the exception of Teller). They saw it at the time as being important for the US to have them first, but afterwards fought off feelings of remorse. Dyson has his own personal battle with having been involved with the planning and analysis that culminated in the firebombing of Dresden.

    Although I find the “spirit of inquiry” interesting, I am disturbed that these discoveries are cultured and harvested with the intent of control. It is not unlike the demons harvesting the dreams of children in Clarke’s “Childhood’s End”.

    Speaking of dreams and demons, Ted Taylor described a dream to George Dyson ( Freeman Dyson’s son who builds skin on frame kayaks in Bellingham, WA ) a few years before his death in 2004. Ted Taylor worked at Los Alamos and later took 3 years of his time and his own money to push for the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty ( the one that Israel still has not signed) ). Here is Ted’s description of the dream:

    “I had a dream last night, about a new form of nuclear weapon… and I’m not telling anybody what this is, because I’m really scared of it. And what that did was to prompt a more intense look at what kind of arms races might be going on, in secret now, all over the world. And there’s much more to be discovered than I ever would have imagined–even having written pieces like ‘Nth generation nuclear weapons’ about ten years ago for the “Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.”

    “I have tried, I thought successfully, to hold on to a vow of just not thinking about new types of nuclear weapons any more. And what’s happened, to put it simply, is that it has gone from my conscious to my unconscious, and it’s emerging as a dream; I cannot shut it off. People make shifts like that; they try to put something out of their minds and it comes in dream-wise. But this was extremely intense and explicit. And I got up for about three hours; I woke up at 2 and went back to bed at about 6 o’clock, and when I started writing I wound up filling up a page with notes, of not just the dream but things that it triggered, that is, some new thoughts. I don’t know whether the concept itself is of any importance but it made sense in the dream and it made sense when I was sitting down writing about the dream, and it still makes sense. So it wasn’t some weird possibility that I cannot describe, but I don’t see any point in doing anything but just keeping that in my head, and, if I could, getting rid of it. The possibilities of new ways of disabling or killing people in huge numbers, or in small numbers from a long distance away, make me think of the sort of prototypical example of what directed energy can do, making the transition from a pile of high explosive to a gun, as the Chinese did, after they invented it.”

    “What I am afraid is in the offing is people figuring out how to make a transition that’s as spectacular as trying to kill a deer at 200 yards with a pile of high explosive, or by shooting at it…”

    One last note: “Divine Strike” is scheduled to be tested in Nevada on June 2nd, 2006.

  6. DM
    Posted April 20, 2006 at 1:44 pm | Permalink

    “Divine Strake”

  7. dugsong
    Posted May 4, 2006 at 2:06 pm | Permalink

    Feynman rocks! “Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman” was probably one of the most important books i’d read growing up. he’s still one of my personal heroes (along with other intellectual iconoclasts like Bertrand Russell).

    here’s an excerpt from his autobiography:

    and on a related tangent, check out “Genghis Blues” – a documentary on Tuvan throat singing, which Feynman was instrumental in exposing to the West.

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