3 things I learnt from “Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman”

Chris Lovejoy

Learning through examples

A technique Feynman uses to check his understanding of new content is to create an example based on what he understands and check with the person explaining it is true.

I can’t remember the exact examples he gave in the book but I will use a personal example that just occurred.

I was opening a new bank account to increase the interest on my savings. The sales assistant explained the different accounts and rules. There was a lot of technical jargon. I wasn’t sure if I understood it all so I framed a question as something along the lines of:

“Am I right in thinking that if I open account X, pay Y amount into it each month and then transfer Z amount into account B then I will get C percent on this amoutn and D percent on this amount?”

This is a rather mundane real-life example, but I use it to demonstrate the principle. It is a useful tool when trying to understand any concept subject that someone else is explaining.

 

Embrace childlike enjoyment

Richard Feynman was one of the greatest physicists of the 20th century. He did not set out to be, but ended up that way by doing what he enjoyed the most.

His enthusiasm for learning and academia is evident throughout the book. For example, he became fascinated by the ability to crack open safes for no reason other than he thought it was fun and could use it to play pranks. One time time he broke into the safe of a high ranking official and moved confidential information about their work developing the atom bomb from one drawer to another. He then watched the guys reaction as he experienced the moment of panic at realisation.

 

The first principles approach

Elon Musk has re-popularised this concept by citing it as one reason he is able to achieve all that he has done.

Reasoning from first principles is working up from the ground first – i.e. from things that you know for certain.

For example, when Elon Musk was thinking about building a rocket, he studied the science beyond rocket propulsion. The way all the other companies (NASA + some Russian companies) were building rockets involved buying parts specifically made for rockets. This meant the items were expensive and looked outdated because little research had been done to improve them since the Moon mission.

By understanding the fundamental requirements for rockets, Elon was able to use parts designed for cars and include them in certain elements of the rocket. He build the rocket from the ground up and in doing so dramatically reduced the cost of production.

Elon describes the converse as ‘reasoning from analogy’. This is where you look at rules accepted by others to decide how best to do something.