S2EP8: Study methods of “The Great Explainer”

The Autodidactic Podcast
S2EP8: Study methods of "The Great Explainer"
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Hello and welcome to the Autodidactic podcast, season 2 episode 8. This episode was also delayed this week, but the reason for the delay was simple; I hadn’t yet finished the autobiography of this weeks featured autodidactic.

This week I’ll be looking at a modern autodidactic Richard Phillips Feynman. Richard Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 and assisted in the development of the atomic bomb during World War II. He became known to a wide public in the 1980s as a member of the Rogers Commission, the panel that investigated the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Along with his work in theoretical physics, Feynman has been credited with pioneering the field of quantum computing and introducing the concept of nanotechnology. Richard Feynman was often referred to as “The Great Explainer” due to his ability to make complex topics understandable.

Richard Feynman was born 11 May 1918 in New York and died 15 February 1988 in Los Angeles, California. Feynman’s parents were Melville Feynman and Lucille Phillips. His father was born into a Jewish family in Belarus and immigrated to the US when he was 5 years old. Lucille Phillips was born in the United States into another Jewish family of Polish immigrants. They were married in 1917 and moved to Manhattan before Lucille gave birth to Richard in 1918.

Melville Feynman was a mediocre businessman but had always had a keen interest in science but never had the opportunity to study. Melville did all he could to interest Richard in science throughout his childhood.

Richard Feynman had two siblings, a brother who died just 4 weeks after being born, and his sister Joan who was born with Richard was 9 years old. The family moved several times during these years but when Richard was ten they settled in Far Rockaway.

Melville Feynman didn’t push Richard into science, his approach was much more intuitive and subtle. He never taught facts so much as questions. He encouraged young Richard to identify not what he knew, but rather what he did not know. This is the essence of Richard Feynman’s style of understanding. By absolutely asking what his ignorance consisted of, he freed himself from conventional wisdom.

Richard learnt a great deal of science from Encyclopaedia Britannica and taught himself elementary mathematics before he encountered it at school. He also set up a laboratory in his room at home where he experimented with electricity. In particular he wired circuits with light bulbs, he invented a burglar alarm, and he took radios apart to repair damaged circuits. When he entered Far Rockaway High School his interests were almost entirely mathematics and science.

He enjoyed recreational mathematics from which he derived a large amount of pleasure. When Feynman was 15, he taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, infinite series, analytic geometry, and both differential and integral calculus.

As a young man in school he found himself who would be perhaps the single most important person in Richard’s life, Arline Greenbaum.

After leaving high-school he applied to several universities. It was difficult for him to find a space even with is obvious gifts. Although his grades in mathematics and science were outstanding, he had performed much less well in other subjects. There was also the “problem” that he was a Jew and in the USA at the time there were quotas on the number of Jews they admitted to university.

Finally he was accepted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or MIT. He entered MIT in 1935 and, after four years study, obtained his B.Sc. in 1939. He went there to study mathematics but, although he found the courses easy, he became increasingly worried by the abstraction and lack of applications. His mathematics lecturers presented him with the view that one did mathematics for its own sake so Feynman changed courses, taking electrical engineering. Very quickly he changed again, this time moving into physics.

The physics course that Feynman took at MIT was not the standard one. He took Introduction to Theoretical Physics, a class intended for graduate students, in his second year. There was no course on quantum mechanics, a topic that Feynman was very keen to study, so together with a fellow undergraduate, T A Welton, he began to read the available texts in the spring of 1936.

Near the end of his time at MIT he began to think about studying for his doctorate. Since he had been so happy at MIT and also believing it to be the leading institution, he approached the head of physics, John Slater, requesting that he stay on to take a Ph.D. course. Slater told him that for his own good he had to move and he suggested Princeton.

Feynman was accepted by Princeton. His doctoral work at Princeton was supervised by John Wheeler. He then went on to develop a new approach to quantum mechanics using the principle of least action. He received his doctorate from Princeton in 1942 but before this time the United States had entered World War II.

During this time in his life he became engaged to marry Arline, which they’d do after completion of his Ph.D. However, Arline at one point started to display serious symptoms of some sort of illness. After some time she was positively diagnosed with tuberculosis, and was not expected to live too many more years. Richard figured that there was only one right thing for him to do, and that was to marry her as soon as possible. He wanted to be responsible for her welfare as much as he could muster. Although his family advised against it because of his unfinished Ph.D., the two were married in a simple civil ceremony.

Feynman worked on the atomic bomb project at Princeton University (1941-42) and then at Los Alamos (1943-45). Feynman began work on the Manhattan project at Princeton developing a theory of how to separate Uranium 235 from Uranium 238, while his thesis supervisor Wheeler went to Chicago to work with Fermi on the first nuclear reactor.

Feynman went to the newly constructed Los Alamos site to work on the atomic bomb project. His remarkable abilities soon led to him being appointed as head of the theoretical division. Arlene died in 1945 just before the first test of the bomb.

After World War II, in the autumn of 1945, Feynman was appointed as a professor of theoretical physics at Cornell University. In 1950 Feynman accepted a position as professor of theoretical physics at the California Institute of Technology. Since he had already planned a sabbatical leave before receiving the offer, he was able to arrange to spend the first ten months of his new appointment in Brazil. He remained at Cal tech for the rest of his career.

Feynman’s main contribution was to quantum mechanics, following on from the work of his doctoral thesis. He introduced diagrams (now called Feynman diagrams) that are graphic analogues of the mathematical expressions needed to describe the behaviour of systems of interacting particles. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1965.

In early 1979 Feyman’s health had deteriorated and he had surgery for stomach cancer. This was very successful and his doctors believed that he would not suffer a recurrence. His final major task was as a member of a committee set up to investigate the cause of the explosion on the space shuttle Challenger on Tuesday 28 January 1986.

It was a very difficult time for Feyman since throughout the investigation his health was deteriorating. Near the end of 1987 cancer was found again in his abdomen.

Luckily for us as autodidactics, Richard Feynman left us details of his learning method and we can adopt these practices ourselves. While he didn’t leave a step by step guide his methods can be taken from his works and autobiography. Richard Feynman had cultivated a habit of deliberate learning, where he used to connect what he knew with what he did not know. Feynman started writing down every topic that was important for him to know which he had no knowledge about. He kept a notebook for the purpose. He called it ‘the notebook of things I do not know’.

The Feynman Learning Technique has been studied and produced by many biographers, and while many will list the steps slightly differently they are mostly the same.

The basic steps are:

Step 1: Write down the topic to study

Step 2: Teach the topic

Step 3: Review what you do not know

Step 4: Explain the topic to someone who knows nothing about the subject such as a child.

In Step 1, selecting a concept to study compels you to be intentional about what you don’t know. It also forces you to choose a topic that’s small enough that it could reasonably fit onto one or several pages.

In Step 2, true understanding requires a more active process like teaching. Start out by formally teaching yourself. Write out a summary in your own words without looking at your notes. Or explain it to yourself out loud. Then take it to the next level by teaching other people. Teaching also initiates a feedback loop, where critique or questions can help us learn and sharpen our thinking.

When working in Brazil teaching at a university he discovered students would memorise the terms and phrases in the textbook which would be on the exam, but didn’t understand the principles behind the terms. Feynman realized people can trick themselves into believing they understand something more than they truly do. These Brazilian students could quote the textbook, but couldn’t explain the concept or give examples.

When you have to truly explain something, whether through writing or aloud, you encounter the holes in your reasoning and the white spaces in your knowledge. Think of writing and teaching as a process to obtain understanding, not something you do once you already understand. When gaps in our knowledge arise and our explanations aren’t quite right, revisiting our primary and secondary sources can help solidify what we’re learning. Getting it right will likely take several iterations. That’s a good thing; the more you refine your explanations, the more your understanding will deepen.

Step 2 and 3 are linked. Review the explanation that you came up with, and pinpoint the areas where you were not clear or you felt your explanation was shaky. Then, return to your source material and notes to better your understanding. Practice step #2 again with your new, revised notes.

Step 4 is to explain this to a child. In order to do this you must simply the terms you use, remove jargon, and use simpler words.

Because science is filled with complex terms, Feynman’s diagrams became valuable to people who were struggling to teach and to people who were struggling to understand. His charts were able to simply explain things that other scientists took hours to lecture students on in an attempt to teach them.

This search for visual representations and simplification also increases you understanding. Using analogies when teaching forces you to meet your listeners where they are in terms of their level of understanding, and relate something they already know to the new concept you are teaching. It’s easy enough to commit terms to memory, and repeat them back when prompted. But memorization is not understanding.

Those are the basic four steps to the Feynman Learning Technique. You can learn these four steps in seconds and apply them in minutes. But the steps are relatively unimportant. What Richard Feynman had and what you need to cultivate is a constant need to question instilled into him by his father Melville. In fact you can further reduce the Feynman Learning Technique down to just simply asking what you don’t know, then finding that out, then repeat.

Well that is all for this week.

If you enjoy the show, please give a rating on the platform you’re using to listen, and please share the podcast with friends and family who might be interested. Also, please feel free to email me at rick@autodidactic.info, or leave feedback on the website autodidactic.info.

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