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Thread: What Problems to Solve – By Richard Feynman

  1. #1 What Problems to Solve – By Richard Feynman 
    Forum Professor river_rat's Avatar
    Join Date
    Jun 2006
    South Africa
    Read this extract this morning from Hacker News and thought I would share it here - it's good advice for any aspiring scientists or mathematicians.

    A former student, who was also once a student of Tomonaga’s, wrote to extend his congratulations. Feynman responded, asking Mr. Mano what he was now doing. The response: “studying the Coherence theory with some applications to the propagation of electromagnetic waves through turbulent atmosphere… a humble and down-to-earth type of problem.”

    Dear Koichi,

    I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the
    Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem
    to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give
    you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are
    the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute
    something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and
    we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take
    even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can
    really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of
    success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a
    question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away
    from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is

    You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with
    problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. Student
    (Albert Hibbs) was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over
    water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the
    problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem
    instead of letting you find your own; and left you with a wrong idea of what is
    interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely those problems you see
    you may do something about). I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to
    correct it a little.

    I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I
    enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed.
    For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished
    surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or,
    how elastic properties of crystals depends on the forces between the atoms in
    them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio
    knobs). Or, how neutrons diffuse out of Uranium. Or, the reflection of
    electromagnetic waves from films coating glass. The development of shock waves
    in explosions. The design of a neutron counter. Why some elements capture
    electrons from the L-orbits, but not the K-orbits. General theory of how to
    fold paper to make a certain type of child’s toy (called flexagons). The energy
    levels in the light nuclei. The theory of turbulence (I have spent several
    years on it without success). Plus all the “grander” problems of quantum

    No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

    You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You
    will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their
    simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me.
    Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. now your place
    in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of
    your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s
    ideals are.

    Best of luck and happiness. Sincerely, Richard P. Feynman.

    As is often the case with technical subjects we are presented with an unfortunate choice: an explanation that is accurate but incomprehensible, or comprehensible but wrong.
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  3. #2  
    Forum Cosmic Wizard
    Join Date
    Dec 2013
    And he bongoed well too!
    I have been reading his lectures again.
    Feynman had a very interesting mind.

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  4. #3  
    Bullshit Intolerant PhDemon's Avatar
    Join Date
    Feb 2013
    Newcastle-upon-Tyne, UK
    I liked his approach...

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