Richard Feynman quotes

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Richard Feynman

Birthdate: 11. May 1918
Date of death: 15. February 1988
Other names: Richard Feynman Philips, Richard Phillips Feynman, Ричард Филлипс Фейнман

Richard Phillips Feynman, ForMemRS was an American theoretical physicist, known for his work in the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, and the physics of the superfluidity of supercooled liquid helium, as well as in particle physics for which he proposed the parton model. For contributions to the development of quantum electrodynamics, Feynman received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 jointly with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichirō Tomonaga.

Feynman developed a widely used pictorial representation scheme for the mathematical expressions describing the behavior of subatomic particles, which later became known as Feynman diagrams. During his lifetime, Feynman became one of the best-known scientists in the world. In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal Physics World, he was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time.He assisted in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II and became known to a wide public in the 1980s as a member of the Rogers Commission, the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Along with his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing and introducing the concept of nanotechnology. He held the Richard C. Tolman professorship in theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology.

Feynman was a keen popularizer of physics through both books and lectures, including a 1959 talk on top-down nanotechnology called There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom and the three-volume publication of his undergraduate lectures, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. Feynman also became known through his semi-autobiographical books Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?, and books written about him such as Tuva or Bust! by Ralph Leighton and the biography Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman by James Gleick.

Works

„It is really quite impossible to say anything with absolute precision, unless that thing is so abstracted from the real world as to not represent any real thing.“

—  Richard Feynman

" New Textbooks for the "New" Mathematics http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/2362/1/feynman.pdf", Engineering and Science volume 28, number 6 (March 1965) p. 9-15 at p. 14
Paraphrased as "Precise language is not the problem. Clear language is the problem."
Context: The real problem in speech is not precise language. The problem is clear language. The desire is to have the idea clearly communicated to the other person. It is only necessary to be precise when there is some doubt as to the meaning of a phrase, and then the precision should be put in the place where the doubt exists. It is really quite impossible to say anything with absolute precision, unless that thing is so abstracted from the real world as to not represent any real thing.Pure mathematics is just such an abstraction from the real world, and pure mathematics does have a special precise language for dealing with its own special and technical subjects. But this precise language is not precise in any sense if you deal with real objects of the world, and it is only pedantic and quite confusing to use it unless there are some special subtleties which have to be carefully distinguished.

„We are not to tell nature what she’s gotta be.“

—  Richard Feynman

Sir Douglas Robb Lectures, University of Auckland (1979); lecture 1, "Photons: Corpuscles of Light" http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eLQ2atfqk2c&t=48m01s
Context: We are not to tell nature what she’s gotta be. … She's always got better imagination than we have.

„I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.“

—  Richard Feynman, book What Do You Care What Other People Think?

"The Making of a Scientist," p. 14 <!-- Feynman used variants of this bird story repeatedly: (1) "What is Science?", presented at the fifteenth annual meeting of the National Science Teachers Association, in New York City (1966) published in The Physics Teacher, volume 7, issue 6 (1969), p. 313-320. (2) Interview for the BBC TV Horizon program "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" (1981), published in Christopher Sykes, No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman (1994), p. 27. -->
What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988)
Context: You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. … I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

„Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.“

—  Richard Feynman

The Value of Science (1955)
Context: The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.

„The real problem in speech is not precise language. The problem is clear language.“

—  Richard Feynman

" New Textbooks for the "New" Mathematics http://calteches.library.caltech.edu/2362/1/feynman.pdf", Engineering and Science volume 28, number 6 (March 1965) p. 9-15 at p. 14
Paraphrased as "Precise language is not the problem. Clear language is the problem."
Context: The real problem in speech is not precise language. The problem is clear language. The desire is to have the idea clearly communicated to the other person. It is only necessary to be precise when there is some doubt as to the meaning of a phrase, and then the precision should be put in the place where the doubt exists. It is really quite impossible to say anything with absolute precision, unless that thing is so abstracted from the real world as to not represent any real thing.Pure mathematics is just such an abstraction from the real world, and pure mathematics does have a special precise language for dealing with its own special and technical subjects. But this precise language is not precise in any sense if you deal with real objects of the world, and it is only pedantic and quite confusing to use it unless there are some special subtleties which have to be carefully distinguished.

„We can deduce, often, from one part of physics like the law of gravitation, a principle which turns out to be much more valid than the derivation.“

—  Richard Feynman, book The Character of Physical Law

Source: The Character of Physical Law (1965), chapter 2, “ The Relation of Mathematics to Physics http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M9ZYEb0Vf8U” referring to the law of conservation of angular momentum
Context: Now we have a problem. We can deduce, often, from one part of physics like the law of gravitation, a principle which turns out to be much more valid than the derivation. This doesn't happen in mathematics, that the theorems come out in places where they're not supposed to be!

„If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.“

—  Richard Feynman, book What Do You Care What Other People Think?

"Afterthoughts," p. 217-218
What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988)
Context: The only way to have real success in science, the field I’m familiar with, is to describe the evidence very carefully without regard to the way you feel it should be. If you have a theory, you must try to explain what’s good and what’s bad about it equally. In science, you learn a kind of standard integrity and honesty.

„Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them.“

—  Richard Feynman

Rogers Commission Report (1986)
Context: Let us make recommendations to ensure that NASA officials deal in a world of reality in understanding technological weaknesses and imperfections well enough to be actively trying to eliminate them. They must live in reality in comparing the costs and utility of the Shuttle to other methods of entering space. And they must be realistic in making contracts, in estimating costs, and the difficulty of the projects. Only realistic flight schedules should be proposed, schedules that have a reasonable chance of being met. If in this way the government would not support them, then so be it. NASA owes it to the citizens from whom it asks support to be frank, honest, and informative, so that these citizens can make the wisest decisions for the use of their limited resources.
For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.

„The method of guessing the equation seems to be a pretty effective way of guessing new laws“

—  Richard Feynman, book The Character of Physical Law

The Character of Physical Law (1965)
Context: …Dirac discovered the correct laws for relativity quantum mechanics simply by guessing the equation. The method of guessing the equation seems to be a pretty effective way of guessing new laws. This shows again that mathematics is a deep way of expressing nature, and any attempt to express nature in philosophical principles, or in seat-of-the-pants mechanical feelings, is not an efficient way.

„The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think.“

—  Richard Feynman

The Value of Science (1955)
Context: The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and uncertainty, and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a scientist doesn’t know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant. When he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And when he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still in some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in order to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for doubt. Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of certainty — some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely certain. Now, we scientists are used to this, and we take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that it is possible to live and not know. But I don’t know whether everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question — to doubt — to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained.

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„I cannot define the real problem, therefore I suspect there's no real problem, but I'm not sure there's no real problem.“

—  Richard Feynman

" Simulating Physics with Computers http://www.cs.berkeley.edu/~christos/classics/Feynman.pdf", International Journal of Theoretical Physics, volume 21, 1982, p. 467-488, at p. 471
Context: We always have had … a great deal of difficulty in understanding the world view that quantum mechanics represents. At least I do, because I'm an old enough man that I haven't got to the point that this stuff is obvious to me. Okay, I still get nervous with it. And therefore, some of the younger students … you know how it always is, every new idea, it takes a generation or two until it becomes obvious that there's no real problem. It has not yet become obvious to me that there's no real problem. I cannot define the real problem, therefore I suspect there's no real problem, but I'm not sure there's no real problem.

„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!“

—  Richard Feynman

volume I; lecture 3, "The Relation of Physics to Other Sciences"; section 3-7, "How did it get that way?"; p. 3-10
Context: A poet once said, "The whole universe is in a glass of wine." We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, 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 reflections in the glass, and our imagination adds the 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 arrays 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!

„We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.“

—  Richard Feynman

The Value of Science (1955)
Context: We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on.
... It is our responsibility to leave the people of the future a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant as we are. If we suppress all discussion, all criticism, proclaiming "This is the answer, my friends; man is saved!" we will doom humanity for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.
... It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.

„Have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, "Is it reasonable?"“

—  Richard Feynman, book What Do You Care What Other People Think?

"What Do You Care What Other People Think?", p. 28-29
What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988)
Context: Doubting the great Descartes … was a reaction I learned from my father: Have no respect whatsoever for authority; forget who said it and instead look what he starts with, where he ends up, and ask yourself, "Is it reasonable?"

„It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life.“

—  Richard Feynman

Rogers Commission Report (1986)
Context: It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask "What is the cause of management's fantastic faith in the machinery?"
We have also found that certification criteria used in Flight Readiness Reviews often develop a gradually decreasing strictness. The argument that the same risk was flown before without failure is often accepted as an argument for the safety of accepting it again. Because of this, obvious weaknesses are accepted again and again, sometimes without a sufficiently serious attempt to remedy them, or to delay a flight because of their continued presence.

„The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. … No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.“

—  Richard Feynman

letter to Koichi Mano (3 February 1966); published in Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard P. Feynman (2005), p. 198, 201
also quoted by Freeman Dyson in "Wise Man" http://www.nybooks.com/articles/18350, The New York Review of Books (20 October 2005)
Context: The worthwhile problems are the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute something to. … No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it. You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself — it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of the naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher's ideals are.

„And therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we are trying to do except to find out more about it“

—  Richard Feynman, book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

Source: No Ordinary Genius (1994), p. 251-252, from interview in "The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" (1981): video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEwUwWh5Xs4&t=45m21s
(Also in book The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999) p. 23.)
Context: People say to me, "Are you looking for the ultimate laws of physics?" No, I'm not. I'm just looking to find out more about the world and if it turns out there is a simple ultimate law which explains everything, so be it; that would be very nice to discover. If it turns out it's like an onion with millions of layers and we're just sick and tired of looking at the layers, then that's the way it is!… And therefore when we go to investigate we shouldn’t pre-decide what it is we are trying to do except to find out more about it… My interest in science is to simply find out more about the world.

„It is not unscientific to make a guess, although many people who are not in science think it is.“

—  Richard Feynman, book The Character of Physical Law

Source: The Character of Physical Law (1965), chapter 7, “Seeking New Laws,” p. 165-166: video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-2NnquxdWFk&t=37m21s
Context: It is not unscientific to make a guess, although many people who are not in science think it is. Some years ago I had a conversation with a layman about flying saucers — because I am scientific I know all about flying saucers! I said “I don’t think there are flying saucers”. So my antagonist said, “Is it impossible that there are flying saucers? Can you prove that it’s impossible?” “No”, I said, “I can’t prove it’s impossible. It’s just very unlikely”. At that he said, “You are very unscientific. If you can’t prove it impossible then how can you say that it’s unlikely?” But that is the way that is scientific. It is scientific only to say what is more likely and what less likely, and not to be proving all the time the possible and impossible. To define what I mean, I might have said to him, "Listen, I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence." It is just more likely. That is all.

„Mathematics is not just a language. Mathematics is a language plus reasoning.“

—  Richard Feynman, book The Character of Physical Law

Source: The Character of Physical Law (1965), chapter 2, “The Relation of Mathematics to Physics”
Context: Mathematics is not just a language. Mathematics is a language plus reasoning. It's like a language plus logic. Mathematics is a tool for reasoning. It's, in fact, a big collection of the results of some person's careful thought and reasoning. By mathematics, it is possible to connect one statement to another.

„There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.“

—  Richard Feynman, book What Do You Care What Other People Think?

"The Making of a Scientist," p. 11: video http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NEwUwWh5Xs4&t=26s
What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988)
Context: I have a friend who's an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don't agree with. He'll hold up a flower and say, "Look how beautiful it is," and I'll agree. But then he'll say, "I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull." I think he's kind of nutty. … There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.

„Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetuer adipiscing elit. Etiam egestas wisi a erat. Morbi imperdiet, mauris ac auctor dictum.“

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