Feynman the Explainer
I love stories about Feynman — probably because I love his style and try to emulate it — and Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! (Adventures of a Curious Character) remains one of my favorite books of all time.
Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine, by W. Daniel Hillis for Physics Today1, is a new story for me though:
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.
Getting Richard to give advice like that was sometimes tricky. He pretended not to like working on any problem that was outside his claimed area of expertise. Often, at Thinking Machines when he was asked for advice he would gruffly refuse with “That’s not my department.” I could never figure out just what his department was, but it did not matter anyway, since he spent most of his time working on those “not-my-department” problems. Sometimes he really would give up, but more often than not he would come back a few days after his refusal and remark, “I’ve been thinking about what you asked the other day and it seems to me…” This worked best if you were careful not to expect it.
I do not mean to imply that Richard was hesitant to do the “dirty work.” In fact, he was always volunteering for it. Many a visitor at Thinking Machines was shocked to see that we had a Nobel Laureate soldering circuit boards or painting walls. 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.