I thought it was a great idea. I would say “A te! A te!” back—gesturing, of course. Then, as I gained confidence, I developed my abilities further. I would be riding my bicycle, and some lady would be driving in her car and get in the way, and I’d say, “PUzzia a la maLOche!”—and she’d shrink! Some terrible Italian boy had cursed a terrible curse at her!
It was not so easy to recognize it as fake Italian. Once, when I was at Princeton, as I was going into the parking lot at Palmer Laboratory on my bicycle, somebody got in the way. My habit was always the same: I gesture to the guy, “oREzze caBONca MIche!”, slapping the back of one hand against the other.
And way up on the other side of a long area of grass, there’s an Italian gardner putting in some plants. He stops, waves, and shouts happily, “REzza ma LIa!” I call back, “RONte BALta!”, returning the greeting. He didn’t know I didn’t know, and I didn’t know what he said, and he didn’t know what I said. But it was OK! It was great! It works! After all, when they hear the intonation, they recognize it immediately as Italian—maybe it’s Milano instead of Romano, what the hell.
I told them that I was going to recite a little poem, and I’m sorry that it’s not in English, but I’m sure they will appreciate it anyway: A TUZZO LANTO —Poici di Pare
TANto SAca TULna TI, na PUta TUchi PUti TI la. RUNto CAta CHANto CHANta MANto CHI la TI da. YALta CAra SULda MI la CHAta PIcha PIno TIto BRALda pe te CHIna nana CHUNda lala CHINda lala CHUNda! RONto piti CA le, a TANto CHINto quinta LALda O la TINta dalla LALta, YENta PUcha lalla TALta!
Finally one day at the end of the class, Professor Robinson went “wugga mugga mugga wugga wugga…” and everybody got excited! They were all talking to each other and discussing, so I figured he’d said something interesting, thank God! I wondered what it was. I asked somebody, and they said, “We have to write a theme, and hand it in in four weeks.” “A theme on what?” “On what he’s been talking about all year.
When Mr. Feynman attends at the philosphy lessons:
Well, now I was in trouble. I admitted that I hadn’t read the book, so I had no idea of what Whitehead meant by the phrase; I had only come to watch. “But,” I said, “I’ll try to answer the professor’s question if you will first answer a question from me, so I can have a better idea of what ‘essential object’ means. Is a brick an essential object?” What I had intended to do was to find out whether they thought theoretical constructs were essential objects. The electron is a theory that we use; it is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call it real. I wanted to make the idea of a theory clear by analogy. In the case of the brick, my next question was going to be, “What about the inside of the brick?”—and I would then point out that no one has ever seen the inside of a brick. Every time you break the brick, you only see a surface. That the brick has an inside is a simple theory which helps us understand things better. The theory of electrons is analogous. So I began by asking, “Is a brick an essential object?” Then the answers came out. One man stood up and said, “A brick as an individual, specific brick. That is what Whitehead means by an essential object.” Another man said, “No, it isn’t the individual brick that is an essential object; it’s the general character that all bricks have in common—their ‘brickiness’—that is the essential object.” Another guy got up and said, “No, it’s not in the bricks themselves. ‘Essential object’ means the idea in the mind that you get when you think of bricks.” Another guy got up, and another, and I tell you I have never heard such ingenious different ways of looking at a brick before. And, just like it should in all stories about philosophers, it ended up in complete chaos. In all their previous discussions they hadn’t even asked themselves whether such a simple object as a brick, much less an electron, is an “essential object.”
And then I thought to myself, “You know, what they think of you is so fantastic, it’s impossible to live up to it. You have no responsibility to live up to it!” It was a brilliant idea: You have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.
It wasn’t a failure on my part that the Institute for Advanced Study expected me to be that good; it was impossible. It was clearly a mistake—and the moment I appreciated the possibility that they might be wrong, I realized that it was also true of all the other places, including my own university. I am what I am, and if they expected me to be good and they’re offering me some money for it, it’s their hard luck.
So I tell them that one of the first things to strike me when I came to Brazil was to see elementary school kids in bookstores, buying physics books. There are so many kids learning physics in Brazil, beginning much earlier than kids do in the United States, that it’s amazing you don’t find many physicists in Brazil—why is that? So many kids are working so hard, and nothing comes of it. Then I gave the analogy of a Greek scholar who loves the Greek language, who knows that in his own country there aren’t many children studying Greek. But he comes to another country, where he is delighted to find everybody studying Greek—even the smaller kids in the elementary schools. He goes to the examination of a student who is coming to get his degree in Greek, and asks him, “What were Socrates’ ideas on the relationship between Truth and Beauty?”—and the student can’t answer. Then he asks the student, “What did Socrates say to Plato in the Third Symposium?” the student lights up and goes, “Brrrrrrrrup”—he tells you everything, word for word, that Socrates said, in beautiful Greek. But what Socrates was talking about in the Third Symposium was the relationship between Truth and Beauty!
What this Greek scholar discovers is, the students in another country learn Greek by first learning to pronounce the letters, then the words, and then sentences and paragraphs. They can recite, word for word, what Socrates said, without realizing that those Greek words actually mean something. To the student they are all artificial sounds. Nobody has ever translated them into words the students can understand. I said, “That’s how it looks to me, when I see you teaching the kids ‘science’ here in Brazil.” (Big blast, right?)
On how students in Brazil were memorizing things all the time without being able to describe the phenomenon:
“I have discovered something else,” I continued. “By flipping the pages at random, and putting my finger in and reading the sentences on that page, I can show you what’s the matter—how it’s not science, but memorizing, in every circumstance. Therefore I am brave enough to flip through the pages now, in front of this audience, to put my finger in, to read, and to show you.” So I did it. Brrrrrrrup—I stuck my finger in, and I started to read: “Triboluminescence. Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed…” I said, “And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven’t told anything about nature—what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can’t. “But if, instead, you were to write, ‘When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. Nobody knows why. The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence.”
About the fragmentation of knowledge:
The subgroup I was in was supposed to discuss the “ethics of equality in education.” In the meetings of our subgroup the Jesuit priest was always talking about “the fragmentation of knowledge.” He would say, “The real problem in the ethics of equality in education is the fragmentation of knowledge.” This Jesuit was looking back into the thirteenth century when the Catholic Church was in charge of all education, and the whole world was simple. There was God, and everything came from God; it was all organized. But today, it’s not so easy to understand everything. So knowledge has become fragmented. I felt that “the fragmentation of knowledge” had nothing to do with “it,” but “it” had never been defined, so there was no way for me to prove that.
Describing simple things in a fancy language:
There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read—something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on that list. I had this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.” So I stopped—at random—and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “*The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read.”* Then I went over the next sentence, and I realized that I could translate that one also. Then it became a kind of empty business: “Sometimes people read; sometimes people listen to the radio,” and so on, but written in such a fancy way that I couldn’t understand it at first, and when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it.
In this quote, Richard Feynman emphasizes the importance of gaining knowledge and developing skills over just focusing on the end result or ’the stuff'.
Feynman believes that the ability to ‘make the stuff’, i.e., the knowledge, the skills, and the insight to create, are far more valuable than the creation itself. Understanding how things work, studying them, experimenting, these are the premises of science, technology and understanding the era in which you live.
The people he refers to, who don’t understand science or technology or their own time, are probably those who only focus on the end result, the product, who see only the invention and not the mind-boggling amount of work, thinking, and creativity that went into making it possible.
I started to say that the idea of distributing everything evenly is based on a theory that there’s only X amount of stuff in the world, that somehow we took it away from the poorer countries in the first place, and therefore we should give it back to them. But this theory doesn’t take into account the real reason for the differences between countries—that is, the development of new techniques for growing food, the development of machinery to grow food and to do other things, and the fact that all this machinery requires the concentration of capital. It isn’t the stuff, but the power to make the stuff, that is important. But I realize now that these people were not in science; they didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand technology; they didn’t understand their time.