Saturday, May 28, 2011

Discovering Feynman

-- contributed by Lily

When I take the kids to the library, I often stroll into the non-fiction section trying to find some easy-to-read books on science and nature for the kids. That’s where I encountered Mr. Feynman the other day. Sandwiched among all the big brick-like, formidable physics books, there stood a novel-looking regular paperback, entitled “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!” Not knowing who Feynman was, I turned to the back cover of the book. Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist who won the Nobel in 1965 for his work on quantum electrodynamics. In this book he recounted his adventures in life, science, and work in a collection of short stories. He is praised as a storyteller in the tradition of Mark Twain, and the book is a New York Times bestseller. All of these sounded enticing enough for me.

But the reviews didn’t quite prepare me for what I would discover inside the book. Once I started reading, Mr. Feynman jumped right out of the pages as such a hilarious person with such a brilliant mind that I couldn’t help applauding and laughing out loud. Of course the kids discovered the book right away and it became a fight among us before bed times.

There’s really not much physics in the book. Rather Mr. Feynman told stories of his life time that intertwined his learning, discovery, his experiences, and his philosophy toward life. Mr. Feynman challenged the conventional wisdoms in every stretch of your imagination and dared to prove it in his ingenious ways. Simple questions, silly things, such as whether urine just comes out by gravity, can you take aspirin and coke at the same time, or do bloodhounds really have better sense of smell than humans. You can tell he was always thinking, exploring, and applying what he learned actively. Once he became interested in something, he had the patience to be better and better at it. From fixing radios in his teens to picking locks and cracking safe codes at Los Alamos, he would tweak and practice until he perfected his skills.

What struck me most about Feynman is that his curiosity toward nature and his methodical ways of discovering nature. How could a person be a great theoretical scientist and an excellent experimentalist? But he is BOTH! As the single chemist in his friend’s company, he developed a silver- plating process, and beaten out a company equipped with a large chemistry department. He studied ants in his apartment and figured out how ants find food and their way home. If these don’t impress you, take this one. While he was at Caltech, Feynman spent his sabbatical in a biology lab and did research work on phage replication. At the end his big moment came as he was invited by James Watson to give a seminar in the biology department at Harvard! I wish Feynman was a biologist, but as he put it “I love physics and I love to go back to it.”

It came as no surprise that Feynman was a strong advocate for quality science education. He challenged his peers, his students, and even educators in other countries to truly understand what they learned, to learn through hands-on experiences and applications rather than rote. Of course, he himself was a great educator and had written excellent textbooks in physics!

It is very entertaining reading Feynman. Watching the kids giggle and laugh while reading the book is a joy. I hope they not only get the jokes but also the way of approaching questions and problems in life.

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