Saturday, November 30, 2013

Feynman and the secret of magic

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."


Luboš Motl said...

Dear Steve, all the history of yours is great. And some scientists clearly do lots of progress by crawling on the shoulders of other men, and lots of people save lots of time by not discovering the wheel. All the obvious personality differences may be spun in various ways - and decorated by various emotional reactions and appraisals with both signs. Coleman and Feynman were different thinkers.

But what I feel deeply uncomfortable with is your

* claim that Feynman's different approach and value system made him "lopsided" - have you considered the option that it may be equally if not more legitimate to consider the others "lopsided"?

* claim that because of Feynman's not reading of some literature, he had gaps in the knowledge of physics. He didn't have any gaps in the knowledge of physics - I mean physics developed up to the 1970s when Feynman was still largely unaffected by high age or illnesses.

The examples you have listed don't show any gaps in the knowledge of physics.

I also disagree with the "magician quote" - which is due to Hans Bethe, if you want to know. It was meant for Bethe to place himself at a distance from Feynman, too, and the very choice of the "magician" terminology was meant as a diplomatic word that makes the listeners think about cranks, too.

But in all these senses, Feynman was no magician. He was the ultimate proper business-as-usual scientist. All the recipes to ignore the literature about things I understand, the need to rediscovery and verify things, and so on - none of these things has anything to do with magic, mystery, or being a crank. It's science as it should be. Moreover, Feynman really used protocols that in principle are accessible to *every* sufficiently intelligent human so there was no magic, nothing that would have to remain inaccessible to anyone who cares about the truth.

It's those who don't follow Feynman's values and key parts of the scientific method who are bizarre, lopsided, somewhere else, who don't really follow the scientific method - as pioneered by Galileo and Newton. These people may be in a majority today, mainly due to the bureaucratization of science in the last 60 years or so. But this gives them no right - and I would say it gives *you* no right - to paint Feynman's "by definition correct and balanced" approach as the lopsided or uninformed one.

Richard Seiter said...

Dear Lubos, Thank you for a lucid and interesting explanation of your concerns with Steve's posts. I'll leave it to Steve to speak to your comments about him if he chooses, but I just wanted to call out one area where I disagree with you because I think it indicates a basic philosophical difference which bears heavily on this conversation.

In your last paragraph (after several statements with which I agree) you state 'Lots of people could be "like" him.' I fundamentally disagree with this. Although potentially +3SD in terms of whatever IQ is measuring, I think Feynman had attributes far beyond that which were critical to his success. Among those may very well have been things like moral values and internal discipline (especially the latter IMO!), but I think at least some of those abilities are properly classed as intellect, just not measured properly by an IQ test. Speaking as someone you would class as 'could be "like" him', I think that makes no more sense than saying that anybody who is 6'6" could be a basketball player like Michael Jordan.

It is possible I am wrong about this and you are right, but this belief fundamentally affects how I interpret and engage with this conversation and I think the difference with your belief is what is generating a lot of heat in this discussion.

P.S. I agree with you about the value of the style of thinking you are defending and am glad to see you doing so even if I don't agree with all of your methods.

efalken said...

Lubos is excitable (ie, prone to excessive ad hominem). Be the better man and don't take offense. Like Chomsky, he's a bright guy with lots of strong opinions, some better than others.

CIPig said...

Somewhere Feynman tells a story that goes a little like this: He was telling his sister (Joan, also a physicist) that he just couldn't understand some new work in the weak interactions. She told him: "No, you mean you just can't figure it all out by yourself. You just need to pretend you are a student again and carefully study the papers." He did, and he did understand and contribute.

Incidentally, I think Fermi and Landau were also physicists who insisted on working out everything for themselves (usually). Not bad company, even for Feynman.

Mike Schrader said...

Is anyone else perplexed by the personal nature in which Lubos has taken Steve's blog post? I almost feel like Lubos and I are reading two different blogs like an A/B test where Steve surreptitiously changes the text to gauge the reactions of his readers.
If Gleick's biography is to be believed, which I do, then numerous contemporaries of Feynman including Schwinger have noted the amazing and often mysterious or incomprehensible powers of intuition Feynman had. That does not imply that Feynman only pulled rabbits out of his black hole, or refused to employ 'mechanistic procedures' in his work.
I don't understand the outrage, the umbrage at insignificant points like the term 'lopsided' for which I can assure Lubos that he is reading into it meanings no native English speaker would.

Ricky said...

Lubos said: "Feynman's approach *was* the proper science, no-nonsense science without any mysteries or magic, and it would be the dominant approach to science if science were not distorted by its localization to limited environments and lots of sociological myths such as those that you promote (e.g. the constant need to lick asses of the humanities etc.)."

Feynman said: "I don't like that they're not calculating anything. I don't like that they don't check their ideas. I don't like that for anything that disagrees with an experiment, they cook up an explanation—a fix-up to say, ‘Well, it still might be true.'"

Luboš Motl said...

Dear Mike, I acknowledge that I am no native speaker and I can't reproduce all the native speaker's emotions about words like "lopsided". To me, it looks like "unbalanced" and opens the possibility to dismiss some principles or even conclusions of Feynman by referring to this alleged "lopsidedness" which surely sounds as a "vice". This adjective just looks way too similar to the adjectives that were used to ostracize dissidents during communism in Czechoslovakia, right-wingers in various places of the U.S. academia, scientists in the environments that are dominated by various nonscientific human activities and so on, and I just found it appropriate to vent my dissatisfaction.

Even among folks like Coleman and Schwinger, Feynman was arguably a minority, he was different in some respects, but this difference doesn't mean that those who are in majority are or were "less lopsided" or "more balanced". After all, the shortage of folks like Feynman in the Academia may be to a large extent do to nothing else than this kid of isolation.

Iamexpert said...

I think by lopsided Steve is simply saying that Feynman was cognitively heterogenous: He was "only" moderately intelligent in some areas (i.e. verbal comprehension) but stratospherically brilliant in other areas (abstract math ). Overall he may have been equally intelligent to other Nobel prize winners if these strengths and relative weaknesses negated each other. Cognitive unevenness is not a vice; I'd rather be the best in one crucial domain even if it meant being much less able in others.

Mike Schrader said...

That's fine, except the point of the post is the exceptionalism of Feynman in the positive sense, of how extraordinary and original a thinker he was even among his prominent peers. Steve's other points about Feynman not reading the existing literature for example are merely descriptive, written as context for Steve's musings about the nature of this special genius, not as criticism of Feynman's talents or methods. The laudatory tone of his post would be clear to most English speakers, and unambiguous for long-time readers of Steve's blog who are aware of his personal association with Richard Feynman at Cal Tech.

Luboš Motl said...

OK, but wouldn't you agree that this "heterogeneity" is pretty much a vacuous tautology? Every person is "heterogeneous" in the sense that you may find something in which he or she is at most "moderately good". You won't find a person whose ranks in all disciplines agree. Pretty much every science Nobel prize winner was significantly better in sciences than in humanities, relatively to the rest of the mankind. And vice versa. So this "heterogeneity" is clearly vacuous and one can't possibly deduce anything specific about a person from that. But Steve is doing something like that which is what makes me feel uncomfortable.

Iamexpert said...

A certain degree of heterogeneity is expected, especially for folks with extreme intelligence, but steve shows in multiple posts that Feynman was exceptionally uneven and that might be useful in understanding his methods

Shawn said...

Certainly. Feynman by far had the highest score in the USA on the Putnam math test.

Iamexpert said...

The bottom line is that some of his cognitive functions were reportedly conspicuously below what might be expected for such an eminent scholar in such a g loaded field. Steve saw evidence of him forgetting how to spell words and failing to grasp the rules of grammar, and his reported IQ on at least one test was nothing beyond the average PhD and perhaps below average for a PHYSICS PhD. How do you explain such anomalies ?

lukelea said...

Lubos sheds real light in my opinion. His comments are illuminating -- and you certainly won't hear them from anyone else's lips.

Rastus Odinga-Odinga said...

All-time favorite Feynman story:
"But there was someone who gave Feynman a taste of his own medicine. The Norwegian-American physicist Ivar Giaever once suffered through a lecture with Feynman. Two years later, he came back to Caltech to give another lecture. This time, however, Giaever not only answered Feynman to the point, but made him look stupid. Obviously, he had done a good job of preparing ahead, deliberately slipping in remarks to provoke Feynman - who walked straight into his trap. Everyone in the lecture hall could feel how stunned Feynman was."

Luboš Motl said...

Feynman was certainly not "extremely uneven" - he was really a profoundly versatile man.

tractal said...

Steve's theory is only that Feynman's mathematical abilities outstripped his verbal reasoning, relatively speaking. He isn't really saying that Feynman wasn't a well-rounded thinker, or that he didn't have diverse interests. Steve isn't saying, for instance, that Feynman wasn't a renaissance man. He is certainly not saying that humanities types are better 'rounded', etc. He's basically speculating that 10 year old Feynman would have scored extremely high on something like the SAT-M, and less high (but probably still above average) on the SAT-V, and that this 'lopsidedness' manifested in a different approach to problems.

Ironically, all of this is meant to call attention to how spectacular Feynman really was.

Diogenes said...

"...internal discipline (especially the latter IMO!), but I think at least some of those abilities are properly classed as intellect..."

but discipline to what end? and why any discipline when one has little confidence all the hard work will pay off? why any discipline when one is in a competition such that success entails that others, perhaps almost all others who try, fail?

dickens and flynn apparently don't understand that iq's heritability doesn't require that the order of scores be the same from one environment to another, but they do make the case that a very large part of intelligence is the propensity of intelligent people to make a stimulating environment for themselves. so discipline, etc. should show up in the iq.

Diogenes said...

and in japan, which has one of the least rigid class systems in the developed world. of course london young knows that the prince was lazy and stupid.

Raghu Parthasarathy said...

Somewhat relevant: There's an excellent essay by Rob Phillips in this week's Nature about The Feynman Lectures, which touches on Feynman's reading of the literature outside physics: "Feynman seems to have been hard at work learning anything and everything he could about biology, coloured by physical reasoning."

Nat Philosopher said...

Feynman can barely understand Tomonaga, or Schwinger. Maybe he could, but anyway he seems to have felt it would be more work to try than to try to figure out how to solve the problem himself. And maybe vice versa as well. Nobody figured out Feynman till Dyson and it wasn't easy for him. For the rest of the world, taken together, understanding Feynman or Tomonaga or Schwinger wasn't actually much easier than solving the problem might have been. One very smart physicist in the world managed it, after many had tried for a while.

There is a literature on how people can't communicate effectively to people 30 IQ points below them, so that people much above 140 IQ tend to get excluded from professions including in large measure Professor.
But perhaps the problem is actually more general. Discoveries that are at a high enough level are inherently hard to communicate. One genius can't even really communicate them to another, just point them in the direction to rederive it themselves.

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