Feynman Ends a Slump

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Way back in high school, my favorite teacher would occasionally chuckle before helping us review exams. "Even the best of us make mistakes," he would add. Over time, anyone who accepted the challenge his tough science courses represented would have ample experience making mistakes and learning from them. No one wants to be wrong, of course, but the eventual realization that many errors can arise from not making connections between things one already knows was an invaluable life lesson. (It came in handy the next year in geometry, when I drew a blank on a proof we'd gone over, and ended up getting extra credit for an original one I made up on the spot during an exam.) That approach represented a refreshing, rational perspective on error that contrasted with the religious elements in my education.

Image courtesy of Pixabay.
A vignette about physicist Richard Feynman helpfully reminded me of this recently. Seeing and enjoying the brilliant work of another had apparently helped him get over a hump:
And so, sitting in the living room of our suite, from one to five in the morning, with Feynman waiting impatiently for me to finish, I [David Goldstein --ed] read the manuscript that would become [James Watson's] The Double Helix.

At a certain point, I looked up and said, "Dick, this guy must be either very smart or very lucky. He constantly claims he knew less about what was going on than anyone else in the field, but he still made the crucial discovery." Feynman virtually dove across the room to show me the notepad on which he'd been anxiously doodling while I read. There he had written one word, which he had proceeded to illuminate with drawings, as if he were working on some elaborate medieval manuscript.

The word was "Disregard!"

"That's what I'd forgotten!" he shouted (in the middle of the night). "You have to worry about your own work and ignore what everyone else is doing." At first light, he called his wife, Gweneth, and said, "I think I've figured it out. Now I'll be able to work again!" [ ... ] [format edits]
I'm not exactly sure in what respect Feynman had started paying too much attention to others. (After all, he got this insight from reading a manuscript.) However, it does seem plain to me that becoming immersed in the brilliant work of another set him free from whatever mistake he was making long enough for him to see what it was and correct it.

We all get stuck from time to time, probably not for the same reason Feynman evidently did, although his advice is good. It can, perhaps, be just as valuable to know that even a formidable intellect can hit a wall and recover.

-- CAV

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