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March 2, 2017 » 7:23 am

Richard Feynman on Explaining Things Clearly

My dad is a physicist who idolized Richard Feynman, which meant that I idolized him as well growing up. One thing about him that made a huge impression on me was how simply and clearly he explained things. Feynman was a genius. If he could explain physics clearly to anyone, then no one had any excuse to put on airs.

The Long Now Foundation recently republished one of my favorite essays about Feynman, Danny Hillis’s, “Richard Feynman and the Connection Machine.” (Hat tip to William Barnhill.) It not only shares many great anecdotes about Feynman, it also is an oral history of the early days at Hillis’s groundbreaking parallel computing company, Thinking Machines.

The whole essay is fantastic, but I like this excerpt about Feynman’s explaining prowess in particular:

In the meantime, we were having a lot of trouble explaining to people what we were doing with cellular automata. Eyes tended to glaze over when we started talking about state transition diagrams and finite state machines. Finally Feynman told us to explain it like this,

“We have noticed in nature that the behavior of a fluid depends very little on the nature of the individual particles in that fluid. For example, the flow of sand is very similar to the flow of water or the flow of a pile of ball bearings. We have therefore taken advantage of this fact to invent a type of imaginary particle that is especially simple for us to simulate. This particle is a perfect ball bearing that can move at a single speed in one of six directions. The flow of these particles on a large enough scale is very similar to the flow of natural fluids.”

This was a typical Richard Feynman explanation. On the one hand, it infuriated the experts who had worked on the problem because it neglected to even mention all of the clever problems that they had solved. On the other hand, it delighted the listeners since they could walk away from it with a real understanding of the phenomenon and how it was connected to physical reality.

We tried to take advantage of Richard’s talent for clarity by getting him to critique the technical presentations that we made in our product introductions. Before the commercial announcement of the Connection Machine CM-1 and all of our future products, Richard would give a sentence-by-sentence critique of the planned presentation. “Don’t say `reflected acoustic wave.’ Say [echo].” Or, “Forget all that `local minima’ stuff. Just say there’s a bubble caught in the crystal and you have to shake it out.” Nothing made him angrier than making something simple sound complicated.

But what Richard hated, or at least pretended to hate, was being asked to give advice. So why were people always asking him for it? Because even when Richard didn’t understand, he always seemed to understand better than the rest of us. And whatever he understood, he could make others understand as well. Richard made people feel like a child does, when a grown-up first treats him as an adult. He was never afraid of telling the truth, and however foolish your question was, he never made you feel like a fool.

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