Richard Feynman: Actively Irresponsible

This Christmas my mother bought my brother a graphic novel called ‘Feynman’ in an effort to nudge him along on his interest in science. In the days following Christmas my brother very actively ignored the book, but I devoured it — I love graphic novels, and this one was particularly awesome.

Richard Feynman was predominantly a physicist, who lived until 1988, and managed, in his lifetime, to be both a world-renowned scientist and a teacher, raconteur,  musician, goofball and overall creative. He made huge leaps in quantum electrodynamics, was a part of the Manhattan project, and was on the team that solved the Challenger disaster.

What’s most fascinating, however, is the way the guy thinks. The graphic novel was so interesting because Feynman was no ordinary man — I always wish I could see the world through his eyes, and I aspire to do so. I had no idea when I started researching him that he had long ago breached the gap between science and the creative world as a great inspiration to many designers, marketers and artists.

Feynman graphic novel

Feynman, a graphic novel biography by Jim Ottaviani and Leland Myrick

Which is why I was so excited to see that Tim Ferris, on his blog on Lifestyle Design Experiments, posted this great video about Feynman titled “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

The introduction captures well the lesson of the video: that the more you know, the more you can imagine. Feynman describes a moment when an artist friend held up a flower and said ‘look how beautiful this is.’ Feynman agrees, but his friend goes on to say ‘I can appreciate it, as an artist, but you as a scientist – you just take it apart, analyze it, make it dull.’ Feynman disagrees. Feynman sees much more about the flower than the artist sees – as he says “there’s beauty at a much smaller dimension,” things the artist doesn’t know to imagine. Feynman asks why, how, what’s happening in the flower — the science only adds to the beauty of it.

At 6:12 Feynman tells a great story about his father telling him how to look at a bird. His father taught him that you could know the name of a specific kind of bird in 18 different languages and still know nothing about the bird — you then only know about humanity, about cultures and places. Feynman, throughout his life, always said his father taught him to look at things. Feynman was much more intelligent than his father, but he owes much of his creative intelligence to his father’s ability to question everything.

After 40:00, Feynman starts talking about his philosophy on learning and teaching. He is an avid practitioner of ‘active irresponsibility.’ He’s selfish, he says — he rejects roles in leadership and responsibility because if he’s on a committee, or in a position, he can’t run around and learn. He can’t run around and experiment then, and that’s not productive for him. I enjoy leadership positions, but his mentality is an amazing way to stay young, creative and inventive.

Feynman is as attentive and particular as he is chaotic and irresponsible; it’s an incredible mix of child’s play and brilliant attention to detail, but in the right order: he questions everything, opens his imagination to the whole world, experiments wildly, then pursues a theory until he’s come at it from every angle humanly possible and made it so fool proof that only he could question it. The best part is that Feynman is always prepared to be wrong, and at the end of the day, he has only one true passion: to just find out about the world.

Isn’t that a great energy to drive you every day?

He’s dissuaded from many of life’s mysteries because people have already clouded his mind with theories. Of those great mysteries, he says, “those are mysteries I want to investigate without knowing the answer to them.”

I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large because they seem to be too simple, too connected, too local, too provincial! …Look at what’s out there, it isn’t in proportion!

Once you start doubting, just like you’re supposed to doubt… when you doubt and ask, it gets a little harder to believe. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing, but to have some answers which might be wrong. I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and there are many things of which I don’t know anything about.

He says not knowing doesn’t frighten him — but it must be a little lonely, to know just how much you’ll never know, and to be consumed every day by massive questions that you’re smart enough to know you’ll never answer. What do you question in the world around you?

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