The Feynman Reaction

I came across this clip of the great physicist Richard Feynman sort-of explaining magnetism, but was taken aback by some of the comments posted on Youtube in reaction to it. Some people appear to have found his response extremely arrogant, while others think he was just being honest (and trying his very best not to be patronising). I know what I think, but doubt if everyone agrees with my reaction.

I know the readership of this blog isn’t a fair sample, but I’d be very interested to see the general opinion on his comments. So please study the clip and complete the poll at the bottom.



32 Responses to “The Feynman Reaction”

  1. Not arrogant but maybe a little impatient – I recon his back was hurting him. I enjoyed his explanation but I suppose he could have talked about the force being a result of the exchange of virtual particles and then you have the Feynman diagram – but that would be a little like blowing your own trumpet I guess?

  2. Todd Laurence Says:

    To All:
    This may be of interest, if you want to discuss it
    by email:

    The Pauli conclusion, On the nature of mind and matter:

    “atom and archetype” Book –

  3. I personally think it is more arrogance than honesty. It is true sometimes when honest you sound arrogant but in this particular case I believe he is making an exceptionally big deal about a simple question above and beyond what he should. It shouldn’t evoke 5 minutes of saying how bad why questions are over a question like “why do magnets repel”.

    Plus, I’ve read enough of Feynman to know he has clever and intuitive answers to questions like these but in this instance he to me came across as just being hard to work with. If we can explain basic properties of magnets to high school students (or equivalent outside the US) then it is a little over the top to think they can’t be explained to the adult population in general.

  4. It comes off as a bit arrogant, but it’s a brilliant and very thoughtful answer. The arrogance might be very well explained if I had watched the rest of the interview, or knew about the questioner. Feynman was certainly thinking past the question itself — he anticipated that if he said “well, there is a magnetic force caused by the alignment of the magnetic fields in the molecules themselves, causing the magnets to be pushed apart,” the interviewer would have replied “yes, but *why* is that true?” If that little exchange had actually taken place, the purported arrogance would have been completely understandable. (Maybe something like that did, off-camera, or maybe Feynman was just responding to previous similar interactions.)

    • telescoper Says:

      I feel it starts off very uncomfortably, with considerable tension between interviewer and interviewee, so there may have been a previous exchange that didn’t go well. However, I think they were wise to keep the camera going because what Feynman says later on (after making peace with his “that’s an excellent question” ploy) is well worth it.

      He may come across as a bit arrogant – I don’t know – but there’s an integrity about his reply, his refusal to “cheat”, which I think it admirable.

  5. I wouldn’t quite call it arrogance or honesty. I’ve had a lot of conversations with brilliant old people (especially my grandfather) and I would actually call Feynman’s answer playful. Yes, it begins awkwardly, yes, Feynman ends it with a smug look on his face. But look beyond that, and you’ll see Feynman making a decision to play with the interviewer a bit. Feynman makes the assumption that the interviewer is not interested in just getting one-sentence answers to science trivia questions, and thank god for that. So he uses the magnet question as a jumping-off point to play with a more interesting idea: how do you boil the grand and infinite world of science down into simple questions and answers? For someone like Feynman, it’s not okay to cheat, and it’s not okay to make things boring just to make them concise. So he gave the interviewer a glimpse into his brain (isn’t that what every interviewer wants, anyway?), and the great never-ending cosmos of fractal questions and answers and sub-answers and sub-questions that Science is composed of. Beautiful.

  6. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by patrick neville and skullsinthestars, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: The Feynman Reaction: […]

  7. Derek Fox Says:

    Personally, I think that taking the interviewer’s question seriously enough not to give a glib and ultimately misleading answer is the opposite of arrogance.

    The answer takes a while because Feynman wants to justify his non-answer and educate the interviewer. He hopes that the interviewer and his audience will learn to appreciate that the assumptions behind the question are sometimes more important than the question itself (or its answer). One might call this patronizing – “Hey buddy, I’ll do my job, and you do yours.” – except that this standard division of labor between journalist and science figure leads to exactly the outcome Feynman wants to avoid – glib answers to easy questions, a sort of “fast food” science – the flavor of understanding without any of its substance.

    To anyone paying attention, this monologue conveys two important facts about magnets and the physical world. First, that understanding the physical world is like peeling back the layers of an onion – each answer you derive leads to deeper questions, onward and inward. Second, that in the everyday world the phenomenon of magnetic attraction and repulsion is suis generis – it cannot be explained simply and accurately (this is important!) in terms of anything else we are familiar with. The only way out is “down the rabbit hole” with Feynman and physics, and the first step will be to learn about electromagnetism.


  8. Feynman could be flippant. I like his “Listen, buddy, if I could explain it to you in a minute, it wouldn’t be worth the Nobel Prize.” In one of the books of his tales, there is a scene where he is objecting rather loudly to trends in the unification of forces etc when a cool Gell-Mann remarks quietly “I see you’ve met Dick”. Gell-Mann, of course, was in many ways the opposite of Feynman, not the country boy done well, but the man of culture. Feynman had a down-to-Earth reputation, Gell-Mann more the refined gentleman. Although he does speak 17 languages or whatever and knows a lot about many fields, Gell-Mann’s remark “If I have seen further than others, then it is because I am surrounded by dwarfs” is more arrogant than anything Feynman ever said.

    With regard to humility, Feynman’s tale of how he was able to reserve a hotel months in advance in Geneva is priceless.

  9. I think it was a wonderful answer and may show it to my first year class.

  10. Does the perception of arrogance not arise principally through his body language? Cusp, if you have more than one first-year class to show it to, perhaps you can try one with video and one just with audio (plus a generic still of Feynman to give the audience something to look at) to see if this is the case.

  11. I think he makes it clear that he thinks “WHY” questions can be very interesting to explore (“Of course it’s a reasonable question, it’s an excellent question” he says when interviewer gets a bit defensive), but also, that they are difficult to answer if two people don’t share the same framework or context. The broader point he’s making is that a scientist is going to be making far more assumptions in his/her contextual framework than the average person asking “WHY”. “WHY” to a scientist is going to elicit a different response/reaction than “WHY” does for John Q. Public.

    On the question of arrogance — well, I think he’s being more puckish or mischievous with the interviewer, under the pretext of clarifying the question. There might be a tiny hint of arrogance there. 🙂 But mostly, he’s just being honest and having a bit of fun, while making a valid point that often does not get made.

  12. The BBC recently reissued the entire Fun to Imagine series on their website:

    Well worth a look in. I wonder who gets credit for the painting of Feynman in the title sequence of each of these six episodes.

  13. Having viewed the clip, I voted for “honest”. I don’t even see how it could be classified as “arrogant”. Arrogant would be “You’re too stupid to understand, so I won’t waste my time explaining it to you.”

  14. Paul Charles Leddy Says:

    Well, he is stuck since he would have to go into the unknown. He should just say: we don’t know yet.

    It would help if he went into what we believe was the birth and evolution of the universe, and this is a perfect opportunity to do so. But maybe he doesn’t want to admit how much he doesn’t know. I don’t know why since it is very obvious how much he does know.

    So, in this sense, he is being arrogant in the way that arrogant people are defined by their inability to admit they don’t know and their defensive attacks on people they deem their submissives, people who should submit to them. He is asking he for submission. He should instead be asking for forgiveness, if not knowing is something to be ashamed of.

    Look, this particular “field” of the universe we live in has certain “quantities” locked down that “determine” how our system acts and reacts. That’s how much we know so far in the public sphere of things.

    I guess he doesn’t want to say: God made it so.

    Just kidding. Kinda.

    OK, I’ll stop, I am being arrogant 😉

  15. This is a very typical reaction of a man who has authority on his subject and knows the limitations of the person asking questions. Feynman is no exception. Had Dirac asked the same question to Feynman, do you think he would have answered it the same way? Never! So one should NOT judge Feynman based on this clip alone, as some have pointed out, at least we should see the whole interaction/interview… For a common reader, you better think Theoretical Physicists as snobs and if they are not, good for you!

  16. >Had Dirac asked the same question to Feynman, do you think he would have answered it the same way?

    I believe Dirac and Feynman had quite different personalities – so, no.

  17. Anton Garrett Says:

    He was entitled to ask questions back at the start, but the ones he did ask were unhelpful. He might have said: “When you talk of a feeling between the magnets, do I take it you mean that they repel?” (To which the answer is obviously Yes.) And: “When you ask me why they repel, do remember that Why-questions have different answers in different categories; since you are asking me and I am a physicist, do I take it that you want a physics answer?” (To which the answer is again obviously Yes.) Then he could have said: “Because I am a physicist and you are not, there will be limits to how far I can go in my explanation, but I remember from my early years what it is to be a layman and I will do my best.” THEN he could have given the fine explanation that he did without 5 minutes of preening.

    • telescoper Says:

      True. What makes it hard to be negative about Feynman, even while he was he was fencing with the interviewer, is that irrestible twinkle in his eye..

  18. Hmn. This amounts to a psychology question, so it’s tough. On balance, he was being arrogant, for which i excuse him, to some extent, because i don’t know the entirety of the context for his attitude (i.e., the Why? — perhaps the interviewer was a total dick), and also because i recognize the initial impulse for the arrogance (i.e., a lack of patience for inexact language). That said, the real physics answer came at about 5:40, but, unfortunately, it was not elaborated upon, even if in non-technical terms. Rather, it got drowned in what amounted to a philosophical digression spurned by the interviewer’s initial lack of scientific felicity. So I guess i couldn’t possibly say why he was being arrogant but he kinda was. (But I still enjoyed his answer.)

  19. Someone mentioned that Feynman had a smug look on his face at the end of this question. I think that’s true, but only because when he started out on the ‘Aunt Minnie’ riff/analogy he wasn’t sure at that point exactly where it was going to lead. I think he was quite pleased (justifiably so) that he managed to explain the difficulties of answering a ‘why?’ question in physics using that simple analogy.

    I also think the tension at the start of the interview is borne out of the fact that he was slightly frustrated at the interviewer’s assumption that it would be a simple question to answer. Part of the point Feynman was making (I think) was that to keep asking ‘why?’ is such an easy thing to do, but it’s enormously difficult for a physicist to give an answer a layman would be satisfied with. Hence the need for a ‘framework’, a mutually agreed set of assumptions or level of complexity of the answer.

    More fundamentally though… I wonder whether this question caused such difficulty because physics really only ever answers the question ‘how?’, not ‘why?’. What I mean by this is that, for example, physics *describes* the force of gravity: how it varies as a function of mass and distance, but not how this force is brought about in the first place. Why do two point masses attract each other anyway?

    Maybe this particular question has been answered (by General Relativity)? But what I would like to ask to any non-layman is whether physics eventually gets to answer questions in terms of *why* something happens – rather than describing *how* something happens or behaves as a function of time etc?

    • Anton Garrett Says:

      You have to be more specific even than How or Why. It is best – provided you do it in good faith – to ask the questioner in what category they are looking for an answer. For example, different people might give these replies:

      Because the magnets are close to each other.

      Because you brought the magnets close to each other.

      Because magnets exert forces on each other.

      Because these are magnets and magnets exert forces on each other (this is the circular argument that Feynman was rightly wary of)

      Because God decreed it.

      Because Maxwell’s equations of electromagnetism predict it.

      Because these are ferromagnetic materials.

      Because these are ferromagnetic materials and ferromagnetism involves the maintenance of aligned atomic spins even into the absence of an externally applied magnetic field, so that each atom contributes a tiny magnetic field and these add up on the large scale instead of cancelling each other out. As to why accelerated charges set up magnetic fields…

      (NB It’s nothing to do with general relativity.)

    • telescoper Says:

      Feynman’s point about the existence of the magnetic force goes also for gravity. You can’t really explain it in terms more familiar than it, but what you can explain is how, starting with the idea that masses exert an attractive force on each other, this same force is responsible for a huge range of disparate phenomena like the Moon going around the Earth and apples falling from trees. The quest is still on to fully explain how the gravitational force might arise from something “more fundamental”, just as we can’t fully explain the origin of the electromagnetic force.

      If this ever does happen, and all the forces we currently regard as fundamental turn out to be aspects of some other force or law of nature, then we would have a theory of everything. But the question could still be asked – why is the theory of everything that theory and not some other?

    • Anton Garrett Says:


      One might hope that a theory of everything is unique by consistency. But even then funadmental theoretical physics would go on, because you might hope to reduce the number of parameters in the theory whose values have to be put in by hand from observation. Get *that* down to zero as well and you really can put your feet up while the experimentalists do their stuff.

    • telescoper Says:

      Even with a Theory of Everything one would still have other questions, such as “Why are there any laws at all?” and, ultimately, “Why is there something rather than nothing”. I’m not sure the answers to such questions can be found within physics.

  20. missed a fourth alternative for the poll:

    he just is incapable of explaining the magnetic force, and his supposed arrogance is a defense from it.

    • Paul Charles Leddy Says:

      Ditto, good one.

      Same reason I didn’t answer the poll. But I never thought to myself: there’s a fourth answer. From now on, I will. So, thanks.

    • telescoper Says:

      Well he actually says he can’t explain it, so you really seem to be saying that he was being honest.

  21. […] as a matter of fact – I couldn’t resist posting this little clip as a follow up to my previous one. In it he talks about a subject that has been a recurring motif on this blog – the importance […]

  22. I checked honest, and I feel the perceived smugness was just his way …at least going by other interviews I’ve seen. Anton Garrett mentioned ‘5 minutes of preening’ – that was the exciting part for me!

    I think the ‘process’ is far more entertaining than the answer.

  23. John Peacock Says:

    The more I think about it, the more I conclude that Feynman’s answer was not only arrogant, but unnecessarily roundabout and not particularly honest. The question was perfectly fair, and its meaning obvious to anyone who has ever pushed a pair of north poles together: it feels like there’s some elastic substance between them, and you think “what *is* that thing that I feel so clearly?”. Feynman knew exactly what the questioner meant, and a non-smartass answer could have been given as follows:

    I know exactly the phenomenon you mean, and we don’t have a clue what it is. We give it the name “magnetism”, but that’s no explanation. The best physicists have been able to do is to connect this thing we don’t understand to other things, like the electric force you experience when you rub a balloon over your hair. We don’t know what that is either, but we do know it’s another aspect of the same thing as magnetism. Electromagnetism behaves a bit like gravity in allowing separated things to push/pull on each other. We don’t know what gravity is either, but a lot of physicists hope that there will be a unified theory in which all these things we don’t understand reduce to one thing that we don’t understand. You may not call that progress, but so far it’s the best we can offer.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: