Friday, July 15, 2011

It's Like Checkers, Only Slower

There is a fetish in modern life for mistaking the introduction of forced complexity into human affairs for fairness, or progress. Truly increasing utility almost always brings simplification, and vice-versa.

Richard Feynman was an interesting person. He was in some ways an abrasive fellow, yet he's almost always seen smiling and animated. Being smart in one particular way makes you impatient with others who are not -- or even worse, usually, others that are almost as smart but not quite. Being really smart at one thing confers no special insight into anything else; usually just the opposite. It's like a form of intellectual celebrity. Like making a billion dollars caterwauling rock songs, so you figure that you'd be a terrific geopolitician. You go looking for physics in metaphysics, for another example.

I don't think I've ever seen anyone that could explain fairly complex things to laymen using mundane examples any better than he did.

Richard Feynman


Rob De Witt said...


My, that's refreshing. What Feynman is describing, imo, is my long-held contention that the left-brain/right-brain model is ultimately reductive, or as I put it "The difference between linear thinkers and intuitive thinkers is that linear thinkers don't believe there's any difference."

As he so eloquently expresses, intuitive thinking subsumes linearity, and encompasses it within the totality of its larger understanding. Small anomalies reveal their larger relationship upon sufficient patience and reflection if one is able to keep looking without seeing, observing without concluding. Definition is pernicious.

I suspect that level of insight is unavailable to the likes of Bongo and Me2, though.

Casey Klahn said...

I can has linear thinking with my intuitivenation.

We had a behavior/psych prof in college who was light years ahead of everyone intellectually. But, when you got him one on one, he would acquire your level and recruit that to communicate with you. I have kids, now.

Oh, now I remember that guy later melted down.

Johnny Glendale said...

I'm currently re-reading "No Ordinary Genius," one of six or so Feynman books I rotate through the years. Definitely a major hero of mine.

Just as uber-smarty-wacko (actually more so)is my other hero, who takes up the other half of a bookshelf: Nicola Tesla (

RJ said...

If you want to get the full flavor of Feynman's range of interests, read his 1974 speech cargo cult science. It ranges from naked hot tubbing to Uri Geller to integrity in scientific research.

People who intend to publish research (particularly research that might end up in new laws or regulations) ought to have to memorize this speech.

Casey Klahn said...

I followed RJ's link.

The keeper line is:
I blurt out, "You're a helluva long way from the pituitary, man!"

misterarthur said...

I loved reading "Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman". And the PBS show about Feynman's attempt to get to Kyzyl .

Sam L. said...

Climate science came immediately to mind on reading Mr. Feynman's speech.

Katherine van Schoonhoven said...

Loved the Feynman clip! I will listen again, but this first time around, I nearly jumped from my chair when he said,

"The thing that doesn't fit -- that's the most interesting."

Isn't that a foundational truth?!

When I treating people in a mental health center, I discovered that the unfinished subject often got the most work between sessions by the client. What we neatly wrapped up at the end of sessions was forgotten, but that unfinished thing ... that niggled and bothered and tickled and became the thing that didn't fit.

Love your blog and your unexpected posts. Thanks!

SippicanCottage said...

Hi Katharine- Thanks for reading and commenting.

I found that remark fascinating as well. It is how I read the newspaper. I find there is usually one sentence, perhaps just a phrase, of useful or interesting stuff in your average wall of text. It is never what the writer is aiming us at.

I make furniture all day with wood that is defective. Tiger stripes are a defect in the wood. Burl is a defect. Bird's eye is a defect.

I go to the lumberyard and look for boards that are perfectly defective. That is where the interest lies.