Richard Feynman: Take the world from another point of view

redazione / 15 May 2015

Take any crazy idea. You tell that people used to believe in witches, and of course nobody believes in witches now. And you say “how could they believe in witches?”. And you turn it around, and you say “Let’s see: what witches do we believe in now? what ceremonies do we do?”. Think from a new point of view!

In his search, Feynman is a celebrated maverick, who is encouraged by his father, a New York clothing salesman, to confront conventional wisdom. We had a lot of little games. Like, he would say, at the dinner table: “Suppose we are Martians. And we came down to this Earth, and we would look at from the outside”. There is a way of looking something anew, as if you never saw it before: for the first time. And asking questions about it, as if you were different.

These days, when you find a particularly difficult problem, when you are stuck, do you tend to say “let’s look at it like a Martian?” Sometimes. There are a lot of things that people did. All these methods, all these ideas (“we should only talk about things that we can measure” or “let’s formulate the equations mathematically” or “let’s guess the equations”), all these things are tried all the time. All that stuff is tried! With a new problem, where we are stuck, we are stuck because all those methods don’t work! If any of these methods would have worked, we would have gone through there. So, when we get stuck in a certain place, it’s a place where history will not repeat herself. And that’s what makes it even more exciting! Because, whatever we are gonna look at, it’s gonna be very different than anything that we have ever seen before. Because we have used all the methods from before. Therefore, the thing like the history of the idea is an accident of how things actually happened. And if I want to turn the history around, to try to get a new way of looking at it, it doesn’t make any difference. I dont’ care. The only thing that is the real test in physics is the experiment, and history is fundamentally irrelevant.

The most enduring legacy from his father was not just learning to question the physical world, but an enthusiasm for the inquiry, which at 54 Feynman still shares today. It has to do with curiosity. It has to do with people wondering what makes something do something.

Written by Marco Tantardini