September 01, 2022

#08-236: The Feynman Algorithm

Feynman in 1984

Note: Richard Feynman was a larger-than-life character as well as an absolutely brilliant physicist. His technique for problem-solving is worth memorizing.

Get Ready: How do you go about reasoning through a problem? Do you have any special techniques?

One of the great stereotypes of American life is that of the "eccentric professor." Einstein with his hairstyle may be the most famous example, but there are many more. One of them--who worked in the same field and in some of the same institutions as Einstein--was Richard Feynman.

You may have heard his name on the sitcom The Big Bang Theory: the scientists in that show work at Cal Tech, the last school where Feynman worked, and Sheldon Cooper in particular was a big fan of Feynman's.

His scientific accomplishments are many. As an undergraduate he worked on the Manhattan Project that created the first atomic bomb. He won the Albert Einstein Award in 1954, and a Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965. In the 1980s he was a member of the commission that investigated the tragic explosion of the American Space Shuttle Challenger.

But he was equally well-known for his big personality. He was a funny guy who was interested in safe-cracking, languages, and playing bongo and conga drums (which he actually did in some orchestras--and once in a samba parade in Brazil when he was teaching there).

He wrote two hilarious autobiographies. The title of the first, Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, was a quote from a lady at a faculty meeting. She had asked if Feynman wanted lemon or sugar in his tea, and he replied, "Both." Her response--"Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman!"--indicated that she thought he wasn't a "normal" person. The second, What Do You Care What Other People Think?, came from the response of his first wife (he had three) when he worried what his colleagues thought of his work.

But my favorite anecdote about Dr. Feynman came, not from him, but from his colleague and sometimes-rival, the 1969 Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann.

In an interview in the New York Times, Gell-Mann facetiously proposed a system of problem-solving that he called "The Feynman Algorithm." It has three steps:

  1. Write down the problem.
  2. Think real hard.
  3. Write down the solution.

Try it!


Practice: Match the term to its definition below:

  1. anecdote
  2. eccentric
  3. facetiously
  4. hilarious
  5. rival
  6. safe-cracking
  7. samba
  8. sitcom
  9. stereotypes
  10. undergraduate

  1. opening a safe illegally
  2. peculiar; odd
  3. very funny
  4. a type of Brazilian dance with African origins
  5. humorously; jokingly
  6. commonly held ideas about members of a group
  7. a competitor
  8. a person working on a bachelor's degree
  9. a short account of an event
  10. a show in which the humor comes from the experiences of the characters

Answers are in the first comment below.

Submitted to the Shenzhen Daily for September 1, 2022

1 comment:

  1. Answers to the Practice: 1. i; 2. b; 3. e; 4. c; 5. g; 6. a; 7. d; 8. j; 9. f; 10. h