Feynman: Asking Questions, Solving Puzzles

What I cannot create, I do not understand. --Richard Feynman

Found on the chalkboard in physicist Richard Feynman's office after his death in 1988. Image by Jennifer Leung.

A wonderful performance of QED in Mansfield, Massachusetts taught me about physicist Richard Feynman, the beauty of mathematics, and the restless questioning and creating that lead us to find meaning in life.

The primarily one-man show brought to life a man who was more vibrant and chaotic than the particles and quarks he studied. To Feynman, everything was a puzzle, and questions, especially the ones that seem the most simple and have already been answered by “the experts” are the ones most worth exploring.

Among his exploits, this Nobel Prize-winning physicist who helped design the atomic bomb also loved appearing in productions at Cal Tech–stealing scenes with small parts just because he could. He successfully picked the locks on every file cabinet and combination safe at Los Alamos just because it was a puzzle to solve. His office was a playground of bongo drums and sketch pads, short stories and theorems. As the show began he explained how collecting stamps as a child led to his desire to visit Tannu Tuva in the USSR by learning Tuvan–a Russian dialect–and scheming ways to enter the remote country.

His mind was agile and curious. He viewed the natural world and its mysteries with appreciation, wonder, and bravado when called for. In short: this was the type of man I would hope education could encourage. He was not a product of education, rather, he never allowed the voice or expertise of another to dissuade him from his many passions or his curiosity. He never took “yes” or “no” for an answer and swore “What I cannot create, I do not understand.”

In my own educational experience, I missed the beauty in physics that captivated this man’s imagination and wished my science teachers had shown me how to ask unabashed questions rather than explaining what to memorize and what to know. Through the performance, the actor shared Feynman’s joy–demonstrating how even a simple piece of glass reveals a mystery of the natural world: light as particle and wave, reflection and refraction–but how do the particles know whether to pass through the glass or bounce off its surface? How often do I allow my students to ask questions with no definitive answers–or help them understand that there is a difference in questions others ask them to “prove” they’ve learned the “right” material and asking themselves “I wonder why?”

I found myself alternatively inspired and challenged by this man’s vision and passion. I wondered what he was like in middle school, this man who picked the locks of file cabinets containing military secrets. Are there Feynmans in my classroom who bide their time until they can leave the confining walls of uniform knowledge, doled out in memorizable bites? How will they feed their curiosity? How will they know it’s okay to be in love with an idea? That joy and learning are not impossible sides to the same coin?

Will the obsession with testing crush the next Feynman before he (or she) can create his (or her) own way to question nature?


GOOD Magazine recently posted this video of Richard Feynman explaining how rubber bands work. I would love to see my students this restless and excited about the world and their understanding of it.