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The Source of Richard Feynman’s Genius

How the precious scarcity of knowledge imbued one of humanity’s most beloved minds with “the pleasure of finding things out.”

The Source of Richard Feynman’s Genius

In his taxonomy of the two types of geniuses, probability theory pioneer Mark Kac distinguishes between “ordinary geniuses” and “magicians,” pointing to Richard Feynman (May 11, 1918–February 15, 1988) as a rare example of the latter. One of the most celebrated minds of the past century, Feynman was a champion of scientific knowledge so effective and so beloved that he has generated an entire canon of personal mythology. And yet he held uncertainty at the center of his intellectual and creative life. The pursuit and stewardship of knowledge was his life’s work, but the ecstasy of not-knowing was the wellspring of his magic. “It is imperative,” he wrote, “to have uncertainty as a fundamental part of your inner nature.”

In his spectacular biography Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (public library), James Gleick examines what seeded this peculiar orientation of mind and spirit, and how it came to shape Feynman’s life and legacy.

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In chronicling Feynman’s childhood in the Far Rockaways in the first half of the twentieth century, which unfolded in an era predating television and even the earliest visions of the web, Gleick does what makes him a biographer of such uncommon mastery — through the elements of his subject’s life, he constructs a diorama of an entire cultural epoch and stuns us into appreciating the imperceptible tectonic shifts that drifted us into the world we’ve come to take for granted. He writes:

Knowledge was rarer then. A secondhand magazine was an occasion. For a Far Rockaway teenager merely to find a mathematics textbook took will and enterprise. Each radio program, each telephone call, each lecture in a local synagogue, each movie at the new Gem theater on Mott Avenue carried the weight of something special. Each book Richard possessed burned itself into his memory.

[…]

Even with the radio era in full swing, one’s senses encountered nothing like the bombardment of images and sounds that television would bring—accelerated, flash-cut, disposable knowledge. For now, knowledge was scarce and therefore dear.

It’s easy to imagine how this mismatch between his intellectual voraciousness and the availability of knowledge would enamor young Ritty with “the pleasure of finding things out” — a phrase that grew to be so integral to Feynman’s identity that it became the title of his collected works.

It’s also suddenly easy, and somewhat alarming, to grasp how profoundly we are shaped by our formative environment and how much what we celebrate as genius is not just a function of personhood but of the confluence of person, place, and time. Can there be a comparable “pleasure of finding things out” in our era of informational morass, which burdens us with the deeply unpleasant task of sifting what is worth knowing from the deluge of what is knowable? When Feynman came of age, the cultural landscape was such that everything knowable was worth knowing — and worth going out of one’s way to know. Young Ritty and his friends “traded mathematical tidbits like baseball cards.”

Gleick writes:

It was the same for scientists. The currency of scientific information had not yet been devalued by excess. For a young student, that meant that the most timely questions were surprisingly close to hand. Feynman recognized early the special, distinctive feeling of being close to the edge of knowledge, where people do not know the answers.

One of Richard Feynman’s little-known sketches

This feeling, Gleick intimates, is also what led Feynman to consistently feel out the frontiers of competence by teaching himself a wide and wild array of skills, always romancing the intoxicating uncertainty of not-quite-knowing:

Democratically, as if he favored no skill above any other, he taught himself how to play drums, to give massages, to tell stories, to pick up women in bars, considering all these to be crafts with learnable rules.

[…]

He made islands of practical knowledge in the oceans of personal ignorance that remained: knowing nothing about drawing, he taught himself to make perfect freehand circles on the blackboard; knowing nothing about music, he bet his girlfriend that he could teach himself to play one piece, “The Flight of the Bumblebee,” and for once failed dismally; much later he learned to draw after all, after a fashion, specializing in sweetly romanticized female nudes and letting his friends know that a concomitant learned skill thrilled him even more — how to persuade a young woman to disrobe. In his entire life he could never quite teach himself to feel a difference between right and left, but his mother finally pointed out a mole on the back of his left hand, and even as an adult he checked the mole when he wanted to be sure. He taught himself how to hold a crowd with his not-jazz, not-ethnic improvisational drumming; and how to sustain a two-handed polyrhythm of not just the usual three against two and four against three but — astonishing to classically trained musicians — seven against six and thirteen against twelve. He taught himself how to write Chinese, a skill acquired specifically to annoy his sister and limited therefore to the characters for “elder brother also speaks.” … He taught himself how to discourage autograph seekers and refuse lecture invitations; how to hide from colleagues with administrative requests; how to force everything from his field of vision except for his research problem of the moment; how to hold off the special terrors of aging that shadow scientists; then how to live with cancer, and how to surrender to it.

After he died several colleagues tried to write his epitaph. One was Schwinger, in a certain time not just his colleague but his preeminent rival, who chose these words:

“An honest man, the outstanding intuitionist of our age, and a prime example of what may lie in store for anyone who dares to follow the beat of a different drum.” … When Feynman was gone, he had left behind — perhaps his chief legacy — a lesson in what it meant to know something in this most uncertain of centuries.

Complement Gleick’s thoroughly fantastic Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman with the great physicist on science vs. religion, how his father taught him about the most important thing, why everything is connected to everything else, and the universal responsibility of scientists.

BP

W.H. Auden on Writing, Belief, Doubt, False vs. True Enchantment, and the Most Important Principle of Making Art

“We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny.”

W.H. Auden on Writing, Belief, Doubt, False vs. True Enchantment, and the Most Important Principle of Making Art

Long before there was the Internet, there was the commonplace book — a creative and intellectual ledger of fragmentary inspirations, which a writer would collect from other books and copy into a notebook, often alongside his or her reflections and riffs. These borrowed ideas are in dialogue with the writer’s own imagination and foment it into original thinking. Over long enough a period of time — years, decades, often a lifetime — the commonplace book, while composed primarily of copied passages, comes to radiate the singular sensibility of its keeper: beliefs are refined, ideas incubated, intellectual fixations fleshed out, and the outlines of a personhood revealed. (Brain Pickings is, in an unshakable sense, a commonplace book.)

Partway between medieval florilegium and modern-day Tumblr, the commonplace book has been particularly beloved by poets, whose business is the revelation of wholeness through the fragmentary. Among the most devoted and masterful practitioners of the art of the commonplace book was the poet W.H. Auden (February 21, 1907–September 29, 1973), who published his in 1970 as A Certain World: A Commonplace Book (public library) — a collection of quotations and reflections, arranged alphabetically by subject, beginning with Accedie and ending with Writing.

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Although the bulk of the book consists of borrowings — most heavily from a handful of Auden’s favorite authors, including Simone Weil, Virginia Woolf, John Ruskin, and Paul Valéry — he also records a number of his own reflections on the subjects that most vividly animate his mind. Among them is the constellation of belief, doubt, certainty, enchantment, and truth.

In the entry for Belief — which includes an aphorism by Stanislaus Lec: “Some like to understand what they believe in. Others like to believe in what they understand.” — Auden writes:

To all human experience, with the possible exception of physical pain, the maxim Credo ut intelligam [“I believe so that I may understand”] applies. It is impossible for a man to separate a fact of experience from his interpretation of it, an interpretation which, except in the case of the insane, is not peculiar to himself but has been learned from others.

It is true, as Pascal says, that “to believe, to doubt, and to deny well are to the man what the race is to the horse,” but only in that order. We must believe before we can doubt, and doubt before we can deny. And … we all do begin by believing what we are told.

He returns to the subject from a different angle in the entry for Enchantment, which opens with a quote by Hugo von Hofmannsthal: “Where is your Self to be found? Always in the deepest enchantment that you have experienced.” In a sentiment that calls to mind Alan Lightman’s beautiful assertion that “faith is the willingness to give ourselves over, at times, to things we do not fully understand… the full engagement with this strange and shimmering world ,” Auden writes:

The state of enchantment is one of certainty. When enchanted, we neither believe nor doubt nor deny: we know, even if, as in the case of a false enchantment, our knowledge is self-deception.

All folk tales recognize that there are false enchantments as well as true ones. When we are truly enchanted we desire nothing for ourselves, only that the enchanting object or person shall continue to exist. When we are falsely enchanted, we desire either to possess the enchanting being or be possessed by it.

We are not free to choose by what we shall be enchanted, truly or falsely. In the case of a false enchantment, all we can do is take immediate flight before the spell really takes hold.

Recognizing idols for what they are does not break their enchantment.

All true enchantments fade in time. Sooner or later we must walk alone in faith. When this happens, we are tempted, either to deny our vision, to say that it must have been an illusion and, in consequence, grow hardhearted and cynical, or to make futile attempts to recover our vision by force, i.e., by alcohol or drugs.

A false enchantment can all too easily last a lifetime.

In the very last entry, titled Writing, Auden shines one final sidewise gleam on this question of belief, doubt, and enchantment as it applies to the artist’s task. He recounts how he discovered the most important principle of making art long before he became a writer:

Between the ages of six and twelve I spent a great many of my waking hours in the fabrication of a private secondary sacred world, the basic elements of which were (a) a limestone landscape mainly derived from the Pennine Moors in the North of England, and (b) an industry — lead mining.

It is no doubt psychologically significant that my sacred world was autistic, that is to say, I had no wish to share it with others nor could I have done so. However, though constructed for and inhabited by myself alone, I needed the help of others, my parents in particular, in collecting its materials; others had to procure for me the necessary textbooks on geology, machinery, maps, catalogues, guidebooks, and photographs, and, when occasion offered, to take me down real mines, tasks which they performed with unfailing patience and generosity.

From this activity, I learned certain principles which I was later to find applied to all artistic fabrication. Firstly, whatever other elements it may include, the initial impulse to create a secondary world is a feeling of awe aroused by encounters, in the primary world, with sacred beings or events. Though every work of art is a secondary world, such a world cannot be constructed ex nihilo, but is a selection and recombination of encounters of the primary world…

Secondly, in constructing my private world, I discovered that, though this was a game, that is to say, something I was free to do or not as I chose, not a necessity like eating or sleeping, no game can be played without rules. A secondary world must be as much a world of law as the primary. One may be free to decide what these laws shall be, but laws there must be.

Of course, the notion that constraints expand creativity rather than limiting it is nothing new, nor is the fact that every creative act is a function of selection — the French polymath Henri Poincaré put it best: “To invent … is to choose. But this pleasurable paradox applies perfectly to the commonplace book itself. Of the enormous volume of literature a reader this voracious devours in a lifetime, only a fraction — a deliberate, meticulously selected fraction — ends up in this sacred notebook, constructing a special kind of secondary world. Auden speaks to this in reflecting on his childhood obsession:

I instinctively felt that I must impose two restrictions upon my freedom of fantasy. In choosing what objects were to be included, I was free to select this and reject that, on condition that both were real objects in the primary world… In deciding how my world was to function, I could choose between two practical possibilities — a mine can be drained either by an adit or a pump — but physical impossibilities and magic means were forbidden. When I say forbidden, I mean that I felt, in some obscure way, that they were morally forbidden. Then there came a day when the moral issue became quite conscious. As I was planning my Platonic Idea of a concentrating mill, I ran into difficulties. I had to choose between two types of a certain machine for separating the slimes, called a buddle. One type I found more sacred or “beautiful,” but the other type was, as I knew from my reading, the more efficient. At this point I realized that it was my moral duty to sacrifice my aesthetic preference to reality or truth.

Later, when he became a poet, Auden found that “the same obligation was binding,” which meant that “self-expression” and “suspension of belief” are never legitimate excuses for sacrificing truth — a tenet that applies not only to poetry but to all art. Its violation is, it seems to me, responsible for the vast majority of bad art — that is to say, art which is self-certain but vacant of truth. Auden writes:

A poet must never make a statement simply because it sounds poetically exciting; he must also believe it to be true. This does not mean, of course, that one can only appreciate a poet whose beliefs happen to coincide with one’s own. It does mean, whoever, that one must be convinced that the poet really believes what he says, however odd the belief may seem to oneself.

What the poet has to convey is not “self-expression,” but a view of a reality common to all, seen from a unique perspective, which it is his duty as well as his pleasure to share with others. To small truths as well as great, St. Augustine’s words apply.

“The truth is neither mine nor his nor another’s but belongs to us all whom Thou callest to partake of it, warning us terribly, not to account in private to ourselves, lest we be deprived of it.”

A Certain World is a creatively and intellectually invigorating read in its totality, and what a shame that the forces of commerce have prevailed over the forces of culture and let this treasure rust out of print.

Complement this particular portion with Adrienne Rich on what “truth” really means and Aldous Huxley on the two types of truth artists must reconcile.

BP

A Lovely Vintage Children’s Concept Book About How the Imagination Works, Newly Discovered and Illustrated

A poetic game of possibility in the language of shape and color.

A Lovely Vintage Children’s Concept Book About How the Imagination Works, Newly Discovered and Illustrated

In the late 1950s, children’s book author Ann Rand collaborated with her then-husband, the graphic design legend Paul Rand, on a series of unusual and imaginative children’s books — Sparkle and Spin and I Know a Lot of Things. Even after they divorced in 1958, they continued working together and published the loveliest of their collaborations, Little 1, in 1961.

After Rand’s death in 2012, a marvelous unpublished manuscript of hers from the 1970s was discovered — a most unusual concept book, partway between graphic design primer, Norton Juster’s The Dot and the Line, and Umberto Eco’s vintage semiotic children’s books, exploring how our imagination combines lines and shapes to build an entire world.

Four decades later, this forgotten masterpiece is brought to life as What Can I Be? (public library) with stunning illustrations by painter and architecture professor Ingrid Fiksdahl King.

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It is hardly a coincidence that King co-authored the 1977 architecture and urbanism classic A Pattern Language — a pioneering inquiry into how the elements of urban design and their arrangement form the patterns that compose the language of community livability. It is our ability to imagine, after all — to combining basic elements into a language of the possible — that makes life livable.

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With simple, inviting words, Rand constructs a poetic game of possibility.

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I’m thin or thick
but always straight as a stick

What might I be?

the mast of a ship
a jump rope held tight
the trunk of a very young tree
or the stem of a flower?

There are a hundred things
you could make of me

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If I’m a line that’s not straight
If I wobble and weave
What could I be?

I can easily make
a splendid snake
or curl into a big lasso

I could be the ruffled edge of waves
on a stormy sea

But let’s see
what you can do with me

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Complement the wondrous What Can I Be? with Shapes for Sounds, a visual history of the alphabet.

Illustrations courtesy of Princeton Architectural Press

BP

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