Honors 182

Probing the Mind of Richard Feynman:

A Case Study of Genius

Genius. A single utterance of this word conjures up images of unparalleled brilliance and curious eccentricity. It exhumes names such as Plato, Newton, and Einstein from their revered graves, and groups them together in unlikely company. Few descriptors have been used with such frequency, however, while still remaining so elusively ambiguous. Everyone can readily recite a list of famous geniuses, but few can accurately describe what genius is. The components of scientific genius remain particularly obscure, but no other discipline provides such fertile ground for the growth of intellectual magnificence. James Gleick writes in his comprehensive biography of Richard Feynman, aptly named Genius, that "people love stories about geniuses as alien heroes, possessing a quality beyond human understanding, and scientists may be the world's happiest consumers of such stories" (Gleick 315). Indeed, a mythic, incomprehensible aura appears to be a necessary precondition before one can achieve the status of genius. Of all the towering giants of twentieth century science, the physicist Richard Feynman stands near the top in this regard. There are so many stories about Feynman's life, most originating with Feynman himself and spread by friends and colleagues, that is difficult to distinguish the man from the myth. It takes more than fame to achieve the status of genius, though. Feynman clearly had a remarkable intellect, perhaps exceeded only by an even more remarkable personality that engaged in incessant questioning and refused to accept the conventions of authority. By examining these various factors at work in the life of one person whose name is so readily associated with genius, it may be possible to understand more fully the nature of genius itself and, more importantly, its role in scientific progress.

To many psychologists, genius is simply a number that falls a certain number of standard deviations to the right of the mean in a bell curve. One of the longest running experiments on intelligence, however, suggests that true giftedness may depend equally as much on other factors like creativity and motivation. Since 1921, psychologists have studied a group of approximately 1500 children with an average IQ score of about 150 that were originally selected by Lewis Terman. The members of this group, known as the Termites, all grew up to be highly successful and productive, but not one of them achieved genius-level contributions (Weiten 356). Genius seems to elude the best efforts of psychologists to capture its essence in a standardized test. If intelligence quotient scores alone could predict genius, then Feynman would be a curious anomaly. Feynman's younger sister Joan, also a physicist, once said that "[Richard] had a normal IQ. When I was a kid, I sneaked off and got into the files and looked up our IQ’s. Mine was 124, and his was 123. So I was actually smarter than he was!" (Sykes 25). Feynman himself refused to accept the notion that his success came from being smarter than other people, instead citing his habit of solving problems in his head. Feynman once told the wife of a friend who suggested that he apply to MENSA, an organization whose members must have IQ’s of 150 or more, that he could not join because his intelligence scores from high school were not high enough. While Feynman was being completely honest, he secretly disdained the arrogance that such an organization represented. Nevertheless, those around him saw something greater at work, even if Feynman himself did not. Feynman clearly had a remarkable ability to visualize equations and physical phenomena in his mind. He once admitted that he saw numbers and equations in different colors. While Feynman was working at Los Alamos on the atomic bomb, Robert Oppenheimer remarked that Feynman was "'by all odds, the most brilliant young physicist here'" (qtd. in Brennan 196). A few years later, an Army psychiatrist ironically declared that Feynman was mentally deficient (Feynman, Surely You're Joking 161-62).

The mathematician Mark Kac developed a frequently quoted explanation of the difference between superior intelligence and true genius:

Feynman begins his first autobiographical collection of personal anecdotes, entitled Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman, with the story "He Fixes Radios by Thinking!". Having started a small radio repair business as a boy in his hometown of Far Rockaway, Queens, Feynman describes how one of his obstinate customers was amazed when the young Feynman repaired his broken radio simply by thinking about the various causes of the symptoms and making a single adjustment (Feynman, Surely You're Joking 20). Feynman often conducted his science in the same way. Part of the reason for his lack of success teaching students was their inability to follow the method he used to answer to their questions. When colleagues or graduate students approached Feynman with what they thought was a new problem or original thesis, Feynman would often interrupt them halfway through their presentation with the answer they wanted.

Of course, many of these cases merely reflected the diverse breadth of Feynman's intellectual interests. A research student at Caltech, Anthony Hey, described how Feynman would listen to his results and then proceed to derive the same answer in several other ways: "He explained to me that, once he could derive the same result from a number of different physical approaches, he had more confidence in its correctness" (Hey 46). Those who worked with Feynman soon realized that Feynman had probably already dabbled in the field that they were studying. Except for his doctoral thesis, Feynman rarely formally published his work. Instead, he kept a working notebook of his ideas on topics ranging from the quantum theory of gravitation to microtechnology. Most of Feynman's theories reached an audience through transcriptions of his lectures, and the infamous Feynman Lectures on Physics, delivered to introductory physics students at Caltech in 1961 and 1962, gained an almost legendary status among physics buffs. Feynman's semi-autobiographical collections of anecdotes, Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think? have gained a similar popularity among the general public, but they are also merely collections of stories that Feynman told to his friend Ralph Leighton.

"Towering genius disdains a beaten path. It seeks regions hitherto unexplored" (Abraham Lincoln, speech to Young Men's Lyceum in Springfield, Illinois, Jan. 27, 1838). Feynman's unique approach to scientific problems played an essential role in his winning the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965 for developing an improved theory of quantum electrodynamics (QED). Freeman Dyson, who would later help translate Feynman's QED theories back into formal equations for use in other areas of physics, said that "I couldn't figure out how he was getting all these amazing answers which turned out to be right. It was just a great mystery. I didn't understand it and, as far as I could tell, nobody else did" (Sykes 73). Feynman won the prize along with Julian Schwinger and Shin'ichiro Tomonago, not for inventing the field of quantum electrodynamics but for fixing its inconsistencies and making it useable. At the time, Willis Lambs' discovery of extra lines in the hydrogen spectrum contradicted Dirac's equation and the relativistic theory of the electron. In addition, QED frequently yielded unusable results by providing infinity as the answer to many problems. Interestingly, Feynman, Schwinger, and Tomonago all independently reached the same underlying conclusion in their research into QED, but Feynman's pictorial and intuitive approach was radically different from the more traditional and complicated systems of Schwinger and Tomonago (Serafini 309). Hans Bethe commented that "Feynman's great secret in solving the problem of quantum electrodynamics was that he developed this way to do it graphically, rather than by writing down formulae… It never occurred to any of us to put the calculations so graphically, and to combine the electrons and the positrons in this ingenious way. That's just why he was a genius!" (Sykes 78-79) One of the greatest contributions of Feynman's inquiries into QED was the development of his Feynman diagrams. These diagrams provide pictorial representations of interactions between photons and electrons, and they greatly speed up the necessary calculations in QED. Scientists have recently extended the use of the Feynman diagrams beyond their original purpose in order to calculate the interactions between other subatomic particles like quarks, gluons, and bosons (Serafini 306).

In his famous philosophical treatise On Liberty, John Stuart Mill comments that "genius can only breathe freely in an atmosphere of freedom. Persons of genius are, ex vi termini, more individual than any other people--less capable, consequently, of fitting themselves, without hurtful compression, into any of the small number of molds which society provides in order to save its members the trouble of forming their own character" (62). If individuality and resistance to authority are definitive characteristics of genius, then Richard Feynman is the quintessential intellectual giant of modern science. In both his personal and professional lives, Feynman made a distinct point to shun intellectual grandstanding and to form his own original view of different phenomena and events. As a young man, Feynman promised himself that he would never be a member of an honorary society if its sole purpose was to function merely as an honorary society. For this reason, Feynman tried repeatedly to resign himself from the National Academy of Science, a task that proved more difficult than expected since no one had ever tried to do this before and the Academy did its best to prevent it from happening: "I had trouble when I became a member of the National Academy of Sciences, and I had ultimately to resign because here was another organization which spent most of its time choosing who was 'illustrious enough' to join" (Sykes 83). Feynman also turned down honorary degrees from Columbia and the University of Chicago (Gleick 384). Feynman even considered turning down the most illustrious award in science, the Nobel Prize itself. Feynman stated publicly that he did not "see that it makes any point that someone in the Swedish Academy decides that [his] work is 'noble enough' to receive a prize" (Sykes 82). Characteristically, Feynman decided to use the prize money he received from the prize to buy a beach house in Mexico. His associate Freeman Dyson would later comment that he thought that Feynman's resistance to the Nobel Prize "was quite genuine… He regarded the Nobel Prize as being damaging to the people who won it, and I think that's true. It very often is. He didn't want to have anything to do with it, but his wife persuaded him that the publicity would be even greater if he turned it down" (Sykes 80).

Feynman's insatiable curiosity was the driving force behind his scientific methodology. He believed without doubt that the primary imperative for science was to doubt everything. Indeed, Feynman maintained that the greatest blunder scientists could make was to fool themselves into believing their own conclusions. With such a view, it is not surprising that Feynman became the Patrick Henry of scientific liberty: "Our freedom to doubt was born out of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question--to doubt--to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not forget this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained" (Feynman, What do You Care 245). Nevertheless, Feynman was extremely critical about less logical fields like mysticism, UFOs, astrology, ESP, and psychology. In a speech that he originally gave as a Caltech commencement address in 1974, Feynman lumped all of these quasi-scientific groups under one term, which he dubbed Cargo Cult Science. In his talk, Feynman explains that in the South Pacific there is a certain tribe of people who saw airplanes land with food and other valuable materials during World War II, and ever since, they have been reconstructing representations of runways and guiding lights in the hope that more planes will land. Of course, the planes never landed again, but this process of imitation without knowing the true cause of a certain event is what Feynman dangerously sees in many pseudoscientific fields: "And it's this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself, that is missing to a large extent in much of the research in cargo cult science. A great deal of their difficulty is, of course, the difficulty of the subject and the inapplicability of the scientific method to the subject" (Feynman, Surely You're Joking 342). Even though Feynman's methods seemed inaccessible at times, he was still a great champion of rational science and the scientific method. When asked about the importance of imagination in science, he remarked that scientific imagination is a unique case with its own distinct constraints. The scientist cannot imagine everything or simply wish the desired results into existence. Scientific imagination must work within the constraints of the existing physical laws of known reality.

Commenting on Feynman's genius, Marvin Minsky, a computer scientist and colleague of Feynman's, remarked:

Even after developing his Nobel Prize winning theories and completing the bulk of his scientific work at Caltech, Feynman continued to exhibit all of these characteristics. They are perhaps most evident in Feynman's investigation of the Challenger explosion in the 1980's. His skeptical nature and remarkable ability to cut through the bureaucratic red tape of central authority led Feynman on the correct path. Most of the scientists that were on the Presidential Commission investigating the explosion of the Challenger space shuttle had some sort of tie with NASA, so the committee as a whole did not want to be overly critical of the agency. Feynman, on the other hand, took his role as investigator quite seriously, and in typical fashion, he formed his own independent investigation apart from that of the commission. He conducted private interviews, and finally, a lead from General Donald Kutyna pointed Feynman in the direction of O-ring failure. Kutyna himself did not want to reveal the sources of his information from within NASA (Brennan 210). Although NASA sent Feynman irrelevant documents when he requested relevant test data about the O-rings, he performed his own experiments and finally reached the conclusion that the cold conditions of the Challenger launch had weakened the resiliency of the O-rings in the shuttle. The commission tried to hide Feynman's findings in an appendix to their final report that was distributed by the press. Feynman was not to be outdone, however, and at the Commission's televised hearing, he explained the physics of the disaster to a national audience of millions. Feynman placed an O-ring from a model Challenger in a C-clamp, submerged the O-ring in ice-water, and revealed the dramatic loss in resiliency after undoing the clamp. In spite of social and governmental impediments, Feynman insured that the truth about the Challenger explosion would break free.

Before making a final decision about Feynman's genius, one must first recognize the context in which Feynman's associates formed their opinions of him. Genius is, to a large degree, merely a commonly agreed upon word used by the general populace to describe someone who is unexplainably intelligent. Hence, genius depends greatly upon fame or notoriety. Although Feynman never called himself a genius, a great many people around him did, and Feynman's attitude itself leant itself to such statements. Feynman's associate and professional rival, Murray Gell-Mann noted that "'he surrounded himself with a cloud of myth, and he spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself.' These were stories Gell-Mann added, in which 'he had to come out, if possible, looking smarter than anyone else.'" (Gleick 11). Part of Feynman's genius clearly resides in the unusual and virtually infamous stories of his exploits, and Feynman certainly did not play a passive role in disseminating these reminiscences. Although Feynman would adamantly deny any such speculation, one must also acknowledge that Feynman's scientific and personal influence would have been far less had he not received the Nobel Prize. As with many Nobel laureates, the prize itself even began to overshadow the life of the person behind it. The title "Nobel physicist" was inextricably attached to his name, and even an article in The Tennessean announcing Feynman's death begins with the headline "Nobel Physicist Feynman dies" (The Tennessean A1). Feynman remained highly productive throughout his life, though, and the Nobel Prize seemed to be just another nuisance that distracted him from his work.

After Fenyman's death on February 15, 1988, a single line remained on the blackboard in his office: "What I cannot create, I do not understand" (qtd. in Brennan 212). Of all the traits of great genius, creativity seems to be the most enduring. Often, the generation of original ideas becomes the defining barrier separating a well-trained mind from true genius. Creativity and intelligence appear to represent separate areas of mental ability, and studies have shown that the two attributes have only a small positive correlation (Weiten 375). While most conventional intelligence tests measure convergent thinking, creativity seems to be more dependent on divergent thinking. Instead of trying to find the answer to a problem by narrowing down a list of alternatives, divergent thinkers create as many solutions to a range of alternatives as possible. Feynman excelled at such thinking, and he would frequently use multiple theories to generate the same answer to a problem. When such theories failed, he created his own. Feynman's personal interests were just as divergent, ranging from playing the bongo drums to deciphering Mayan hieroglyphics. In an description of the unifying personality traits of creative individuals, Wayne Weiten concludes that "creative people tend to think for themselves and are less easily influenced by the opinions of others than the average person is. Creative people also tend to be more tolerant of complexity, contradiction, and ambiguity than others. They don't feel compelled to simplify everything, and they're not as troubled by uncertainty as many people are" (375). Having authored a book entitled What Do You Care What Other People Think?, Feynman obviously valued his own autonomy and independence. He also frequently expressed his appreciation for doubting and his comfort with the unknown: "You see, I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. . . I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose--which is the way it is, so far as I can tell. Possibly" (qtd. in Sykes 239). Even as Feynman approached the greatest unknown of all, his own death, he maintained his good humor and incessant scientific curiosity by making jokes and communicating his experiences up to the very end.

Feynman's life suggests that creativity, independence, curiosity, intellectual wizardry, and social mystique are all different ingredients of the recipe for genius. Nevertheless, one cannot attempt to formulate a definitive list of the components of genius by studying only a single representative. What is genius? The question must remain unanswered. Indeed, once one begins to probe the surface of this puzzle, even more questions emerge. If genius is not purely based on intelligence, can it be taught? What is the explanation for the preponderance of mood disorders in highly creative individuals? As the population of the world and the dissemination of knowledge increases, should not the number of genius-level contributions to the sciences also be expanding? There might not be any simple answers to these questions, but Fenyman himself would say that this is all the more reason to continue the search. The true beauty of science lies not in the solutions to the great problems, but in the process of exploring and investigating its questions.















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Last updated 4/24/98.