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Bill Brown

A complicated man.

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I just finished listening to an audio version of Richard Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Overall it was pretty mixed in its content, but what was good was really, really good.

One story he repeatedly shared—the book is a collection of individual essays and documents from Feynman’s life so it’s replete with repetition—is about the walks through the woods that he used to take as a child with his father, a uniform salesman. Other boys in his peer group would ask him if he knew what some bird or tree was called and mock him when he didn’t know because their fathers taught them such things. The difference was that his father taught him that knowing what something is named tells you absolutely nothing about the thing itself, only what words humans use to refer to it.

His father would ask him how a squirrel moves and Feynman (the child) would reply that it was by using his muscles. His father would say, “Nope, it’s because the sun shines.” Feynman would look at him quizzically and his father would then ask a series of questions that delved deeper into each succeeding premise until the ultimate cause was clearly that the sun was shining. His father had no scientific training, but he wanted his son to become a scientist. (I must confess now that I may have gotten the specifics of this story—and any others I relate—incorrect since I can’t readily go back and verify my memory. I do, however, know the gist of them.)

On another walk, they were really studying trees and Feynman’s father told him that on all these walks they had really only gotten to know half of the forest’s workings. Feynman was again curious and his father pointed out that they had been focusing solely on living things. Death was an important process in the forest and so he proceeded to search for evidence of chains starting with things dying. They found rotting trees, animal carcasses, and so on.

The last story about the interaction between the Feynmans that struck me was how Feynman’s father used to tell him bedtime stories from different perspectives and Feynman the child had to guess who his father was using. Sometimes it might be a Martian, other times it was a bug in the carpet. Feynman related that these stories exerted a powerful influence on him at the time because they seemed so vivid as his father described the world as viewed from an ant’s perspective.

These stories (and there were many more that I enjoyed) illustrated the power of showing rather than telling. Feynman’s father could have delivered extensive tales of biological processes or everyday bedtime stories. Instead, he took the opportunity to present lessons—in stepping out of your own way of looking at things, in looking beyond the obvious workings of our world, in getting to the root causes of the way things are. He did it through means a child could understand, which made it accessible.

The main thing that Feynman says his father instilled in him was that the world was full of wonder. This curiosity manifested itself in his interest in physics, but it could also show up in his forays into psychology and his generally skeptical manner. He emphasized that curiosity was its own reward.

These are the things I want for my children, things that I have enjoyed throughout my life. I hope that I can do it in a similarly inspiring fashion, rather than a clumsy, lecturing style that turns them off. Feynman’s The Pleasure of Finding Things Out is an excellent source for the former and well worth it for any parent who desires the same.