The joy of explaining

One of my personal heroes is Nobel laureate Richard P. Feynman.Feynman + apple

My University course included an exhilarating amount of Physics, but having majored in Classical Literature I was lacking the vast majority of preparatory studies which I had to do on my own.

Appreciative of my struggle, one of my teachers was kind enough to advise me to use prof. Feynman’ Physics course as a support textbook; at that time I did not know he smoked pot, played bongos and picked locks as a hobby, but in reading his lessons I found myself attracted to his figure.

Even after I graduated in Nuclear Engineering, despite the fact I never practiced it, I retained a vivid interest in Physics, and I continued to read Feynman’s books and lessons, as my admiration became deeper and deeper: the above ad contributed, no doubt, to make me switch from Windows to Apple.

In fact I thought I had read and watched everything that exists by dr. Feynman or about dr. Feynman. But I was wrong.

Today my good friend Geoffrey Rowan (thank you!) puts on my Facebook stream a priceless interview where the professor essentially refuses to explain to a BBC journalists why magnets behave the way they do because – he says – “I cannot explain this in terms of anything that’s familiar to you”.

First of all, regardless of how much you understand or love Physics, you owe it to yourself to watch the interview.

You may think dr. Feynman is belittling the journalist’ preparation in physics, but he is not. In fact there is another tale that helps shed light on the importance he gave to explaining things in rigorous way.

At the end of a lesson in Princeton, one of his freshman students approached him with a question. The professor said: “This is a very good question. So good, in fact, I will prepare a whole lesson on it.”

Time passed, and the lesson did not come, so the student came back to Feynman to ask whether he had forgotten about it.

Professor Feynman said: “No, I haven’t forgotten. But I realized I cannot explain what you asked in terms that a freshman can understand. This means we don’t fully understand this particular phenomenon, yet!”

That statement implicitly defines what the man thought the importance of Physics was for the ordinary person:

Reality can only be explained to someone who understand Physics at the freshman level.

Study, kids of the world, study !

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