19 April 2010

The Brain of Richard Feynman

I've been interested in the life and work of Richard Feynman for some time. I've read some of the collections of lectures, such as "Six Easy Pieces" and also the collection of reminiscences "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!". I don't purport to understand a great deal of the Physics in the lectures, except on a superficial level. I know that I would need to get a decent grasp on mathematics if I really wanted to go there. Maybe one day.

Feynman was a fascinating character. A physicist with a supreme disregard for uniforms and honours, despite his sharing in the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965, along with Sin-Itiro Tomonaga and Julian Schwinger, for their fundamental work in quantum electrodynamics (QED). He was a handy (sic) bongo player with a sharp sense of humour and a deep love of finding out how things work. He understood that he may not find the answers he sought but the joy of trying drove him on. He had a darker side too. His involvement in the Manhattan Project haunted him later in his life, as must have the death of his first wife.

There is a huge amount of information available about Mr Feynman, and his books are wonderful, so I won't go into his life or work in any more detail here. What fascinates me, personally, about Richard Feynman is the way that he looked at the world. I really wonder if that way of seeing things is accessible to all of us or just to a select few. Was his brain wired so differently that most of us cannot hope to understand his viewpoint?

The part of it I do truly understand is the hardwired loathing of uniforms and honours. The detestation of the elevation to virtual godhood of other humans when they are, in reality, no better or no worse than ourselves. This feeling - the "I can't stand it!" reaction Feynman talks about in one of his TV interviews, comes through the simple application of logic to our real circumstances. We are smart apes with big brains. Feynman didn't "hate" the Pope but he detested the "idea" of people like the Pope, with their ridiculous uniforms and rotten dogmas.

Also, surely, we are all capable of grasping the constantly-questioning aspect of a brain like Feynman's. We are born inquisitive. We just need to keep that into adulthood, and forego the arrogance of assuming that we know much at all about the world. That way we would keep experimenting (often failing) and continue to feel the joy of discovery throughout our lives. This isn't idealistic. It's the only way to grow.

Is there a particular kind of structure to a human brain; a particular configuration of neurons it must have to allow it to think in the "Feynman mode"? I don't think so. Neuroscience is beginning to reveal how plastic the brain actually is. Maybe the very act of keeping that particular kind of inquisitive aspect of our personalities to the fore would change us; not into Richard Feynmans but certainly into better humans with more humility and more capability to deal with constant uncertainty. Uncertainty is natural, fixedness is not. Look at the structure of an atom.

Much as I am interested in him and his "curious" attitude to everything, I know there's no place for a "Cult of Feynman". He would have hated that. It sounds too much like something you might need a uniform for.