Feynman and the secret of magic

Written by: Stephen Hsu

Primary Source: Information Processing

Lubos Motl seems to have taken offense at my last post: Feynman’s Cognitive Style. This is a rather ironic outcome, given that I’ve been a “Feynman idolator” since I was in high school :-) In fact, I chose my college (Caltech), career, and even research specialization under his influence!

In the previous post, I noted that Feynman’s cognitive profile was probably a bit lopsided — he was stronger mathematically than verbally (these notions are ill-defined, but see the previous post and subsequent discussion). His research style was also influenced by an exceptional originality, creativity and stubborn streak of independence. Ultimately, this style may have led to greater contributions than if he had followed a more conventional path. But, it is nevertheless interesting to observe that his stubborn habit of ignoring the literature led to large gaps in his knowledge. (See earlier post for examples. Contrary to Lubos’ impression I am not making fun of Feynman!) In Coleman’s analysis below (taken from Gleick’s Feynman biography — the chapter on Genius), Feynman’s refusal to read the literature is portrayed as a conscious choice, but I suspect it also had to do with cognitive profile, especially early in his career. Feynman often found it easier to invent his own solution to a problem than to understand someone else’s published paper.

Lubos is upset that I might think that Schwinger was, at least in some ways, “smarter” than Feynman. Even so, Feynman is my hero, not Schwinger. Feynman had no rival in his generation when it came to originality and creativity. See also Success vs Ability and Out on the tail.

NYTimes: … The generation coming up behind him, with the advantage of hindsight, still found nothing predictable in the paths of his thinking. If anything he seemed perversely and dangerously bent on disregarding standard methods. “I think if he had not been so quick people would have treated him as a brilliant quasi crank, because he did spend a substantial amount of time going down what later turned out to be dead ends,” said Sidney Coleman, a theorist who first knew Feynman at Caltech in the 50’s.

“There are lots of people who are too original for their own good, and had Feynman not been as smart as he was, I think he would have been too original for his own good,” Coleman continued. “There was always an element of showboating in his character. He was like the guy that climbs Mont Blanc barefoot just to show that it can be done.”

Feynman continued to refuse to read the current literature, and he chided graduate students who would begin their work on a problem in the normal way, by checking what had already been done. That way, he told them, they would give up chances to find something original.

“I suspect that Einstein had some of the same character,” Coleman said. “I’m sure Dick thought of that as a virtue, as noble. I don’t think it’s so. I think it’s kidding yourself. Those other guys are not all a collection of yo-yos. Sometimes it would be better to take the recent machinery they have built and not try to rebuild it, like reinventing the wheel. Dick could get away with a lot because he was so goddamn smart. He really could climb Mont Blanc barefoot.”

Coleman chose not to study with Feynman directly. Watching Feynman work, he said, was like going to the Chinese opera. “When he was doing work he was doing it in a way that was just — absolutely out of the grasp of understanding. You didn’t know where it was going, where it had gone so far, where to push it, what was the next step. With Dick the next step would somehow come out of — divine revelation.”

The characterization below is one of my favorites. We all stand in awe of the magicians!

“There are two kinds of geniuses, the ‘ordinary’ and the ‘magicians,’ ” wrote the mathematician Mark Kac. “An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.”

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Stephen Hsu
Stephen Hsu is vice president for Research and Graduate Studies at Michigan State University. He also serves as scientific adviser to BGI (formerly Beijing Genomics Institute) and as a member of its Cognitive Genomics Lab. Hsu’s primary work has been in applications of quantum field theory, particularly to problems in quantum chromodynamics, dark energy, black holes, entropy bounds, and particle physics beyond the standard model. He has also made contributions to genomics and bioinformatics, the theory of modern finance, and in encryption and information security. Founder of two Silicon Valley companies—SafeWeb, a pioneer in SSL VPN (Secure Sockets Layer Virtual Private Networks) appliances, which was acquired by Symantec in 2003, and Robot Genius Inc., which developed anti-malware technologies—Hsu has given invited research seminars and colloquia at leading research universities and laboratories around the world.
Stephen Hsu

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