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Ideas – and Feynman (TEDxDelft)

This blog was originally written live at TEDxDelft 2011

When I woke up this morning, all excited about today’s event, I started thinking about “ideas worth spreading”. Somehow, and not surprisingly, I thought of Richard Feynman. His way of thinking, and him being a top-notch scientist, are both a lasting inspiration and a close-to-home link to TEDxDelft

Feynman on the environment for ideas

In “Surely, you’re joking Mr. Feynman”, Feynman explains his way of working, developing ideas and the necessary conditions for developing ideas.

Feynman’s way of working reflected his love for solving riddles. He loved breaking locks, solving puzzles and taking part radios. He loved a challenge as well, and was fueled by curiosity (when lecturing in Brazil, he ended up playing in a samba band).

When Feynman “got stuck” in research at a certain point, he saw a certain object falling down, and wanted to write down the equations of motion. Just the fact that he started working on “something”, and he started developing equations again, he managed to get his thoughts and research back on track.

Feynman challenges the idea some scientists have that you need the ideal conditions to do great work:

When I was at Princeton in the 1940s I could see what happened to those great minds at the Institute for Advanced Study, who had been specially selected for their tremendous brains and were now given this opportunity to sit in this lovely house by the woods there, with no classes to teach, with no obligations whatsoever. These poor bastards could now sit and think clearly all by themselves, OK? So they don’t get any ideas for a while: They have every opportunity to do something, and they’re not getting any ideas. I believe that in a situation like this a kind of guilt or depression worms inside of you, and you begin to worry about not getting any ideas. And nothing happens. Still no ideas come. Nothing happens because there’s not enough real activity and challenge: You’re not in contact with the experimental guys. You don’t have to think how to answer questions from the students. Nothing!

In fact, Feynman told that he liked working from strip clubs and bars.

Understanding in order to build up an idea

When Feynman thought he could not understand another researcher’s presentation and paper, his sister sent him upstairs with the paper and told him to work on it himself. When he started to break down the paper and work through it himself, equation by equation, he could understand and even take the ideas a step further. Some argue that he could not accept any idea at all, and that he needed to break everything down and then build it up from scratch in his own mind. Others write: “I think Feynman had a healthy respect for how our minds actually work — as opposed to how they might work if they were ideal reasoning machines.”

Fully breaking down a concept into its core elements, understanding these elements and then using them for your own ideas, is a true challenge, but it is the fuel which drives ideas fundamentally progressing science and our society.

Feynman and TEDx

An example of how closely TED(x) and Feynman are related, can be seen here. The university where he spent most of his career, is organizing a TEDx event on Feynman’s vision.

Also, Feynman’s ideas just appeared a few moments ago in Leo Kouwenhoven’s TEDxDelft talk.

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This Post Has One Comment
  1. I just read a great graphic novel about him today. As a physics prof at a local community college, I can't help but admire a guy that is smart enough to admit reality and still embrace its absurd beauty at the same time— nice!@

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