No Joking Matter: Feynman on Research (Feynman Part 2)

This post is the second in a series of reflections on Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman, a collection of vignettes by the Nobel-Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman.

In the previous post, I had my dander up about Professor Feynman’s ogling of the co-eds. I can see that his creepiness was a distraction—for him and for me—from a point he makes about the process of academic research. Here is more of the passage:

At Cornell, I’d work on preparing my courses, and I’d go over to the library a lot and read through the Arabian Nights and ogle the girls that would go by. But when it came time to do some research, I couldn’t get to work. I was a little tired; I was not interested; I couldn’t do research!…I simply couldn’t get started on any problem: I remember writing one or two sentences about some problem in gamma rays and then I couldn’t go any further. …So here I was, “burned out,” reading the Arabian Nights and feeling depressed about myself.

As irritated as I was with him for ogling, I also wanted to hug* him for the confession of being in a rut. If The Magnificent Feynman can feel stuck and burned out, there’s no great shame if The Middling LK does, too. *Maybe an air hug.

Research had become a job for him, instead of play. Here’s how he explains it.

I used to do whatever I felt like doing—it didn’t have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I’d see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn’t have to do it; it wasn’t important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn’t make any difference: I’d invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

Many of us who have jobs that include academic research came to the career path with an intrinsic motivation to know. But once on the path, the worldly motives, like getting publications and keeping my job, have an unfortunate power to crowd out the original, perhaps nobler, purposes. Some pressure to be productive is healthy; it holds us accountable. But the creative spark is notoriously impervious to a job description.

Feynman ponders one handy way out of a rut: students! I also loved this passage, about the central role of teaching to a university’s research enterprise:

The questions of the students are often the source of new research. They often ask profound questions that I’ve thought about at times and then given up on, so to speak, for a while. It wouldn’t do me any harm to think about them again and see if I can go any further now. The students may not be able to see the thing I want to answer, or the subtleties I want to think about, but they remind me of a problem by asking questions in the neighborhood of that problem. It’s not so easy to remind yourself of these things. So I find that teaching and the students keep life going, and I would never accept any position in which somebody has invented a happy situation for me where I don’t have to teach. Never.

We should remember this debt we have to students, as our community of “intelligent and challenging nonexperts” (a phrase from a column in The Chronicle of Higher Education). As the author writes,

Otherwise, submerged in the complexities of…research, [faculty] will lose sight of the general human significance of what they are doing. This is the wisdom of making universities not just research institutions but also centers of undergraduate education.

That is a much more satisfactory idea of why Feynman appreciated being around the co-eds!

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