Painting by Katarina Countiss
“It’s like having a Galacticredit card which keeps on working though you never send off the checks. And then whenever I stop and think– why did I want to do something?– how did I work out how to do it?– I get a very strong desire just to stop thinking about it.” -Zaphod Beeblebrox, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams, p.143
Excerpt from Feynman’s Rainbow: A Search for Beauty in Physics and Life by Mlodinow, Leonard (Book – 2003) p.55-60. Leonard Mlodinow writes about his relationship with the renowned Richard Feynman. This is a snippet from one of his recorded conversations. These are Feynman’s words.
When you first came here and asked to discuss how I approached a problem, I panicked. Because I really don’t know. I think it’s like asking a centipede which leg comes after which. I have to think a while, try to look back and quote some problems.
In some cases finding the problem you work on could be a result of a very good creative imagination. And solving it may not take nearly the same skill. But there are problems in math and physics where there is the reverse situation. The problems become sort of obvious and the solution is hard. It’s hard not to notice the problem and yet the techniques and methods known at the time and the amount of information known to people is a small amount. In that case, the solution is the ingenious thing.
A very good example is Einstein’s theory of relativity ad gravity—the general theory of relativity. With relativity it was clear that they had to combine somehow this theory of special relativity, that light travels at a certain speed, c, with the phenomenon of gravitation. You can’t have that—you can’t have the old Newtonian gravity with infinite speeds, and the relativity theory that limits speeds. So, you have to modify the theory of gravity somehow.
Gravity had to be modified to fit the theory of relativity, that light undergoes motion at a certain speed. Well, that’s not much to start with. How to do it?! That was the challenge!
That this had to be done was obvious to Einstein. IT wasn’t obvious to everyone because to them the special theory of relativity wasn’t yet obvious. But Einstein had gotten past that so he saw this other problem. It was obvious, but the way of solving it, that took the utmost imagination. The principles that he had to develop! He used the fact that things were weightless when they fell. It took a very, very lot of imagination.
Or let’s take the problem I’m working on now. It’s perfectly obvious to everybody. We have this mathematical theory called quantum chromodynamics that is supposed to explain the properties of protons and neutrons and so on.
In the past if you had a theory and wanted to find out if it was right you just took it out, ad looked at what happened in the theory, and compared it to experiment. There, the experiments are already really done. We know lots of properties of the protons. And we have the theory. The difficulty is that it’s new, and we don’t know how to calculate the consequences of this theory, because we haven’t got the mathematical power.
To invent a way of doing it. Now how do you do that? You have to create or invent a way to do it. I don’t know how to do it. Here the problem is obvious, and the solution is hard.
It took many pieces of imagination to find this theory, people noticing patters and gradually discovering things, ultimately the quarks, and then trying to find the simplest theory. So there was a long history that produced this particular problem. It took us a long time to get here, but now our noses have been kind of rubbed in it.
I am working on this very hard problem now, and have been for the last few years. The first thing I tried to do with this problem is try to find some sort of mathematical way of doing it, solving some equations. How did I do that? I did I get started on figuring it out? It’s probably kind of determined by the difficulty of the problem. In this case, I just tried everything. It’s taken two years, and I’ve struggled with this method and that method. Maybe that’s what I do—I try as much as I can different kinds of things that don’t work, and if it doesn’t work I move on to some other way of trying it. But here I realized after trying everything that I couldn’t do that. That none of my tricks worked.
So then I thought, well, if I understood how the thing behaved, roughly, that would tell me more or less what kind of mathematical forms I might try. So then I spent a lot of time thinking about how it worked, roughly.
There are also some psychological things there. First of all, in my later years, I take only the most difficult problems. I like difficult problems. The problems that nobody has solved, and therefore the chances that I’m going to solve it are not too high. But I feel now that I’ve got a position now, the tenure, I don’t worry about wasting the time it takes to work on a long project. I don’t have to say I’ve got to get my degree in a year. It’s true that I may not last so long physically, but I don’t worry about that.
The next psychological aspect is, I have to think that I have some kind of inside track on this problem, that is, I have some sort of talent that the other guys aren’t using, or some way of looking, and they are being foolish not to notice this wonderful way to look at it. I have to think I have a little bit better chance than the other guys, for some reason. I know that it is likely that the reason is false, and likely the particular attitude I’m’ taking it was thought of by others. I don’t care; I fool myself into thinking I have an extra chance. That I have something to contribute. Otherwise, I may as well wait for him to do it, whoever it is.
But my approach is that I’m never the exact same as someone else. I always think I have an inside track, I always try another way. And I think that because I’m trying another way that’s it. They haven’t got a chance. It’s exaggerated. And I have to work myself up to this exaggeration. I always consider it something like Africans when they were going out to battle, to beat drums and get themselves excited. I talk to myself and convince myself that this problem is tractable by my methods and the other guys are not doing it right. The reason that they haven’t gotten it is that they aren’t doing it right. And I’m going to do it a different way. I talk myself into this, and I get myself enthusiastic.
The reason is, when there is a hard problem, one has to work a long time, and has to be persistent. In order to be persistent, you have got to be convinced that it’s worthwhile working so hard, that you’re going to get somewhere. And that takes a certain kind of fooling yourself.
This last problem, I really did fool myself. I haven’t gotten anywhere. I couldn’t say my approach is very good. My imagination is failing me. I’ve figured out qualitatively how it works, but I can’t figure out quantitatively how it works. When the problem is finally solved, it will all be by imagination. Then there will be some big thing about the great way it was done. But it’s simple—it will all be by imagination, and persistence.