Archive for Richard Feynman

Late Talking

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , , on July 5, 2011 by telescoper

In the course of linking my previous post to Richard Feynman’s wikipedia page, I happened upon an interesting fact:

Feynman (in common with the famous physicists Edward Teller and Albert Einstein) was a late talker; by his third birthday he had yet to utter a single word.

I therefore have something in common with these famous physicists. I didn’t learn to speak until I was well past my third birthday, as my mum never tires of reminding me.  In fact, as I have blogged about before,  I was a very slow developer in other ways and when I started school was immediately earmarked as an educational basket case.

I subsequently discovered that

Neuroscientist Steven Pinker postulates that a certain form of language delay may be associated with exceptional and innate analytical prowess in some individuals, such as Albert Einstein, Richard Feynman and Edward Teller.

Which is obviously where the similarity between me and these chaps ends, as I certainly don’t have “exceptional and innate analytical prowess”. I am however intrigued by the fact that I at least shared their  failure to develop language abilities on the same timescale as “normal” infants. I don’t know very much at all about this field, even to the extent of not knowing at what age most children learn to talk…

So here’s a couple of questions for my readers out there in blogoland. Were any of you late talkers? And how unusual is it for a child not to speak until they’re three years old?

Contributions welcomed through the comments box!

Feynman on Wine

Posted in Poetry, The Universe and Stuff with tags , on July 5, 2011 by telescoper

A poet once said, ‘The whole universe is in a glass of wine.’ We will probably never know in what sense he meant it, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass of wine closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflection in the glass; and our imagination adds atoms. The glass is a distillation of the earth’s rocks, and in its composition we see the secrets of the universe’s age, and the evolution of stars. What strange array of chemicals are in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization; all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure; drink it and forget it all!

Richard Feynman (1918-1988)


Ways of Thinking

Posted in Biographical, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 25, 2010 by telescoper

I’m putting one more Richard Feynman clip up. This one struck me as particularly interesting, because it touches on a question I’ve often asked myself: what goes on in your head when do you mathematical calculations? I think I agree with Feynman’s suggestion that different people think in very different ways about the same kind of calculation or other activity.

There’s no doubt in my mind that I’ve become slower and slower at doing mathematics as I’ve got older, and probably less accurate too. I think that’s partly just age – and perhaps the cumulative effect of too much wine! – but it’s partly because I have so many other things to think about these days that it’s hard to spend long hours without interruption thinking about the same problem the way I could when I was a student or a postdoc.

In any case, although much of my research is mathematical, I’ve never really thought of myself as being in any sense a mathematical person. Many of my colleagues have much better technical skills in that regard than I’ve ever had. I was never particularly good at maths at school either. I was sufficiently competent at maths to do physics, of course, but I was much better at other things at that age. My best subject at O-level was Latin, for example, which possibly indicates that my brain prefers to work verbally (or perhaps symbolically) rather than, as no doubt many others’ do, geometrically or in some other abstract way.

Another strange thing is the role of vision in doing mathematics. I can’t do maths at all without writing things down on paper. I have to be able to see the equations to think about solving them. Amongst other things this makes it difficult when you’re working things out on a blackboard (or whiteboard); you have to write symbols so large that your field of view can’t take in a whole equation. I often have to step back up one of the aisles to get a good look at what I’m doing like that. Other physicists – notably Stephen Hawking – obviously manage without writing things down at all. I find it impossible to imagine having that ability.

But I endorse what Richard Feynman says at the beginning of the clip. It’s really all about being interested in the questions, which gives you the motivation to acquire the skills needed to find the answers. I think of it as being like music. If you’re drawn into the world of music, even if you’re talented you have to practice long for long hours before you can really play an instrument. Few can reach the level of Feynman (or a concert pianist) of course – I’m certainly not among either of those categories! – but I think physics is at least as much perspiration as inspiration.

In contrast to many of my colleagues I’m utterly hopeless at chess – and other games that require very sophisticated pattern-reading skills – but good at crosswords and word-puzzles. Maybe I’m in the wrong job?


The Inconceivable Nature of Nature

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 19, 2010 by telescoper

I had a couple of requests to post yet another Feynman clip. This one – about electromagnetic waves and swimming pools – is one that I vividly remember watching on BBC when it was first broadcast donkeys’ years ago. I think it’s totally wonderful.


Through the Looking Glass

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 15, 2010 by telescoper

I’m afraid I’m too busy again for a proper post, so I’ll resort once again to the supply of wonderful Richard Feynman clips on Youtube. Here’s a particularly nice one, about the mysterious matter of mirrors. I might use this later on this year when I talk about parity to my particle physics class!



Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , on November 7, 2010 by telescoper

At the risk of turning this blog into a Feynman-fest – although I don’t think that would be such a bad thing, 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 of knowing when not to be certain.


The Feynman Reaction

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 5, 2010 by telescoper

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.