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.

Emile Zola on Poetry and Craft, Nature vs Nurture

Viola Davis’s introduction of Meryl Streep for the Golden Globe Cecil B. DeMille Award last Sunday was a highlight in its entirety, as was Streep’s powerful acceptance speech. But one thing that stood out in particular for me was Davis quoting Émile Zola:

If you ask me what I came to do in this world, I, an artist, I will answer you: I am here to live out loud!

Because I am anal, I double check quotes I like before I save them, and the best source for citations is often Wikiquote. While scanning Zola’s Wikiquote page and affirming that he did indeed say the above, I also ran across this quote that I love in a letter to Paul Cézanne in 1860:

There are two men inside the artist, the poet and the craftsman. One is born a poet. One becomes a craftsman.

The Special Quality of Crafts

Yanagi Soetsu, founder of the mingei (folk craft) movement in Japan, on craft:

The special quality of beauty in crafts is that it is a beauty of intimacy. Since the articles are to be lived with every day, this quality of intimacy is a natural requirement. The beauty of such objects is not so much of the noble, the huge or the lofty as the beauty of the familiar. People hang art high up on the walls, but they place objects for everyday use close to them, and take them into their hands.

Via the Tom Bihn blog.

Obama: Keeping It About the Work

President Barack Obama on the time he felt most broken, from his interview with Humans of New York:

I first ran for Congress in 1999, and I got beat. I just got whooped. I had been in the state legislature for a long time, I was in the minority party, I wasn’t getting a lot done, and I was away from my family and putting a lot of strain on Michelle. Then for me to run and lose that bad, I was thinking maybe this isn’t what I was cut out to do. I was forty years old, and I’d invested a lot of time and effort into something that didn’t seem to be working.

But the thing that got me through that moment, and any other time that I’ve felt stuck, is to remind myself that it’s about the work. Because if you’re worrying about yourself — if you’re thinking: “Am I succeeding? Am I in the right position? Am I being appreciated?” — then you’re going to end up feeling frustrated and stuck. But if you can keep it about the work, you’ll always have a path. There’s always something to be done.

Via Rebecca Petzel.

What Does Great Collaboration Feel Like?

What does great collaboration feel like? Here’s the legendary basketball player Bill Russell’s description from his book, Second Wind: The Memoirs of an Opinionated Man:

Every so often a Celtics game would heat up so that it became more than a physical or even mental game, and would be magical. That feeling is difficult to describe, and I certainly never talked about it when I was playing. When it happened, I could feel my play rise to a new level. It came rarely, and would last anywhere from five minutes to a whole quarter, or more. Three or four plays were not enough to get it going. It would surround not only me and the other team, and even the referees. At that special level, all sorts of odd things happened: The game would be in the white heat of competition, and yet somehow I wouldn’t feel competitive, which is a miracle in itself. I’d be putting out the maximum effort, straining, coughing up parts of my lungs as we ran, and yet I never felt the pain. The game would move so quickly that every fake, cut, and pass would be surprising, and yet nothing could surprise me. It was almost as if we were playing in slow motion. During those spells, I could almost sense how the next play would develop and where the next shot would be taken. Even before the other team brought the ball inbounds, I could feel it so keenly that I’d want to shout to my teammates, ‘it’s coming there!’ — except that I knew everything would change if I did. My premonitions would be consistently correct, and I always felt then that I not only knew all the Celtics by heart, but also all the opposing players, and that they all knew me. There have been many times in my career when I felt moved or joyful, but these were the moments when I had chills pulsing up and down my spine.

On the five or ten occasions when the game ended at that special level, I literally did not care who had won. If we lost, I’d still be as free and high as a sky hawk.

Thanks to Deborah Meehan for the pointer!