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Feynman’s Breakthrough, Disregard Others (2017) (stepsandleaps.wordpress.com)
267 points by rendx 32 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 80 comments



This feels like the sort of advice that increases the variance of outcomes more than the mean, if that makes any sense. It'll help some people, but also really won't help others. It's like... You'd need some serious disregard for the rest of the physics community to think you can figure out a reactionless drive. This is great if you actually can, but otherwise it's going to lead you to failure.

In a lot of ways, getting advice from the outliers on the very edge of a field is like getting advice from lottery winners. That's not to say you shouldn't - but at the same time a lot of effort has to be made to separate the wheat from the chaff.


I think the advice here is "get as good as you can, get as smart as you can, and then, when you decide to set off on embarking on a calculated risk, try to forget all the noise around you and stay the course."

I feel like the problem is there's a lot of wannabes who skip the steps of actually gaining competence and then disregard the advice of others. That's not going to work. The first step is years of hard work. For instance, crank physicists who don't really understand graduate level physicists are not going to accomplish anything by disregarding the advice of others.

However, if you know what you're doing, don't second guess yourself when embarking down a risky path. It's probably not as dangerous as it may seem.


I think it would be very desirable to increase the variance of outcomes without significantly decreasing the mean.

The way research funding is structured now, researchers are incentivized towards taking small publishable steps without too much risk. This is needed of course, but it isn't going to bring about another Newton.

I think we desperately need a few more Newtons if we're to prosper in the next hundred years.


A research infrastructure that could support improving the variance of results without significantly impacting the mean would be an enormous boon to the world.


I came to suggest something similar.

I often wonder how much this applies today. Academic science is currently heavily driven by funding of popular, low-risk research.

Also, without meaning any disrespect to Feynman or the advice, it's easy enough to say something like "disregard what others are doing" when you've won a Nobel. It's another thing to say this to people in just about any other inequivalent scenario, which is nearly everyone.


That is probably what is desirable for the field as a whole. But as an individual, not a good idea to shoot for high variance.


Anyone who wants high mean low variance career should become an accountant or a dentist: the payoff is vastly better, and it takes a comparable amount of intelligence.

This low variance attitude is why we can't have nice things. We have more "scientists" alive now than at any time in human history, and it is boring and useless with virtually no downstream results.


Part of the issue is that scientific fields are very punishing if you deliver negative results, thus the incentive to "shoot for the moon" is greatly lessened.


In fields like art, programming, and physics, you'd better be doing something weird. If you're doing something mainstream, the same thing thirty other people around the world are doing, you're all competing to make the same thing — paint the same painting, write the same text editor, prove the same theorem about black holes. Twenty-nine of you are going to get scooped by whoever is the hardest-working, the smartest, the best-supported institutionally, or whatever combination of those turns out to be the deciding factor. Your chance of being in that 97% who have totally wasted their efforts? 97%.

And if you're doing something really mainstream, like writing the next big client-side JavaScript framework, the one that will replace React, watch out! Your chances are a lot worse than that, because there are hundreds of thousands of people who fight with React every day and are frustrated with its shortcomings. Your chances are literally millions to one, unless you work at Microsoft or Google and have management support to beat those Facebook fuckers.

But if you're doing something offbeat, working on a problem† that's mainstream enough to be interesting if you're successful but not mainstream enough that dozens of people are already spending their weekends trying to solve it, you have a much better chance of finding a niche for your project. Maybe it's non-mainstream because people take for granted that it can't be solved (in which case they might be right, as with the reactionless drive — the objective here is to be weird in your project goal, not your epistemology); maybe because they don't understand why it would be important to solve it ("Where's the market?"), and you do; maybe, as with OpenSSL, it's an important problem, but there's no way to get paid for solving it.

A thousand hackers writing a thousand versions of the same library in the same way are only epsilon more productive than one hacker. A thousand hackers writing a thousand different libraries are almost a thousand times as productive.

Winning the lottery? Well, that's pretty much out of your control — but if you do decide to waste your money on the lottery, don't pick a number lots of other people are picking. Then you'll have to split the already-improbable winnings N ways.

But what if you're determined to solve a mainstream problem anyway, one where a thousand people are also trying to solve it? Then you need all the outcome variance you can get! If, of those thousand hackers, 500 are using a very conservative approach that is guaranteed to solve the problem with some quality metric 10 ±1 in 26 weeks ±2 weeks (these being the standard deviations, not some kind of 95% confidence interval), while the other 500 are using all kinds of wild approaches that give them quality metric exp(ln(4)±ln(4)) in time exp(ln(52)±ln(4)) weeks, it's pretty much guaranteed that the "winner" is going to be someone with a totally insane approach that hacked together a library with quality 49 in only 14 weeks. It's not going to be one of the 26-week plodders, because 14 weeks is 12 standard deviations out on their distribution (vs. 0.95 out on the crazy hackers' distribution), and quality 49 is 39 standard deviations out (vs. 1.3 out on the crazy hackers' distribution).

In fact, it's even worthwhile to sacrifice expectation to get higher variance in these situations. If your only hope of winning is to beat everyone else in a single round, you should do whatever will increase your minuscule chance of a home run, regardless of how it affects your chances of striking out.

It's still not socially optimal for people to behave this way — note that here you have 1000 hackers whose aggregate productivity is only about 20× the productivity of an average plodder — but if you've gotten suckered into competing for a mainstream niche, that's the way to play the game.

All of the above is for the simplified situation where you're working on a project by yourself. In a teamwork situation, the relevant actor is your team, not you individually. Do not write your code in Clojure if the rest of the team is working in Ruby. Do not try to solve only problems that nobody else on the team thinks are important.

And this advice definitely does not apply to a situation where doing the same thing someone else already did is valuable. If you're making a sandwich, there's no reason it needs to be different from the sandwich someone else is making across the street. They're two different sandwiches. If someone eats the sandwich across the street, it's gone and it can't feed your customer. They're going to be happy if you make them a sandwich they like, even if it's a little worse than the sandwich across the stret; even if there are many just like it, this sandwich is theirs. This is very different from the situation in software, where one sandwich feeds everybody in the world at once, except people with celiac disease. Nobody is going to be happy that you wrote a web browser from scratch for them instead of just installing Firefox.

† I recognize that a painting is not "solving" a "problem", but many of the same principles apply.


When does weird become too weird? I’m building a non-instant messenger, for example.


I don't know! That sounds like a worthwhile project to me; I'm on one email mailing list which only comes out in a nightly digest in order to remove the incentive for instant responses and promote thoughtful response instead. Harvard's Rotisserie system (http://h2oproject.law.harvard.edu/) was another effort in that direction. And I was also on Slashdot starting around 1997, and I observed the incentive structure of its commenting system pushing discussions in the opposite direction — with commenters racing to make the first comment in a new comment thread, even if it was just "First post", before the voting system was introduced.

The biggest difficulty I've had with such things is a sort of Gresham's Law of attention: because Twatter and Fecebutt (and IRC) offer the possibility of instant reactions, I have a strong temptation to spend time on them instead of in more thoughtful, slower forms of interaction. The wild success of Fecebutt and, even more so, Zynga, suggests I'm not the only one.


I hadn't heard about Gresham's Law. Thanks a lot for that. And I definitely hadn't heard about Rotisserie:

> The Rotisserie implements an innovative approach to online discussion that encourages measured, thoughtful discourse in a way that traditional threaded messaging systems cannot. In contrast to the completely asynchronous, broadcast-to-broadcast mode of existing threaded messaging systems, the Rotisserie adds structure to both the timing and the flow of the discussion.

Thanks for that too. That's exactly the communication platform I made/am making. For me there's also the "human" element as described in Time, Work-Discipline, and Industrial Capitalism [0]. Like how "human time" is not "modern life time," but we're still humans so wouldn't it be nice to have a space where we communicate in human time. But yes Gresham's Law... hmmm...

[0] https://www.sv.uio.no/sai/english/research/projects/anthropo...


Email is a cesspool, this is a genius idea.


Thank you. I’m not happy with some aspects of it but will share it on here soon.


E-mail?


Rolled it out a bit as “email” actually but that proved confusing for people: “email” carries a lot of baggage, social and technical. Why do you say email? It’s instant.


Iterate a few times and expectation and mean start to matter


It depends. If you're hacking on free software, as you should be, then after the first iteration, everyone can start using the clearly-much-better thing that is already working, rather than wasting months finishing their own inferior versions. And the person who wins the race that time around may not be the same one who won the first time.

The other thing is that there are distributions like the Cauchy distribution that are so heavy-tailed that they don't even have a mean†, or even a variance. The Law of Large Numbers doesn't apply to them at all! And even for more ordinary heavy-tailed distributions that do have means, like the lognormal distribution (relevant here since it's empirically the distribution of how much we misestimate tasks by) the Law of Large Numbers takes a lot more than "a few times" to start making the distribution of the sum look normal. Try it! Pop open Jupyter and convolve the lognormal distribution with itself a few times! How long does it take before it even starts to look Gaussian? How long does it take before it still looks Gaussian in a log-linear plot?

†In your comment you said "mean and expectation", but those are the same thing. Possibly you don't know anything about statistics yet? If so, welcome! You're one of today's lucky ten thousand!


Or, more tersely: We're not all brilliant enough to disregard others, but we all still inherently wish to disregard others.


I don't think this was about disregarding everyone around all the time. This was something that helped Feynman to move in that particular situation when he was weighted down by other peoples expectations and what not.

The story is at the point where he is already honored, known and has "outstanding popular touch". That is when he read a book and calls the wife in the middle of the night to say: "I think I’ve figured it out. Now I’ll be able to work again!"

This does not mean that people should disregard others all the time routinely. It means that there are situations where you have to disregard others expectations, advice and what not.


> It means that there are situations where you have to disregard others expectations, advice and what not.

And that’s the tricky part. In order to understand, which situation to disregard and which not.


That is where expertise, experience and actual knowledge comes to play. Which Feynman at that moment possessed. It is also relative, you can be both too much accommodating and too much disregarding. One person can move between the two extremes over his own life.


In fact, the distinguishing characteristic is to act, not utterly understanding.


The more experienced I get at programming, the more I find that disregarding others is the correct choice. I have a background and intuition informed by 'common wisdom', but enough confidence to go against it when it seems to make sense without second guessing myself.

Well, at least sometimes. I am getting better at it.

For a master of his domain like Feynman that affect would surely have been amplified. He can back himself to go on a tangent, against the backdrop of the backdrop of the fundamentals of his field.


I had opposite development. At first, those who disregarded others looked like geniuses and heroes. Over time, I started to see damage they caused. Well timed doing your thing is indeed good thing, but those who routinely disregard others slow overall speed of the whole team down.


That depends on how the team compares to the mean of (larger) teams. Teams that are grown by weak engineers who never tried to improve their skills through cross polination are examples. You cant fix the whole situation, but you can find a few very smart ones to go against "common" wisdom

Because common wisdom may be common to your small team, and not at all to a more skilled set of engineers.


An approach that increases variance + survivor bias = a number of exalted recommendations: "for that brilliant person it worked like a charm, despite everyone's doubts!"

Obviously when the same approach went someone to a spectacular ruin, that someone is an obvious crackpot who insisted on a wrong thing despite everyone's opinion. It's not worth a story, so nobody mentions these losers.


> increases the variance of outcomes more than the mean

So, it makes sense to apply it in circumstances where worse outcomes cost you the same as just bad ones, but best outcomes bring in much more than ordinary good ones.


No. Pay attention to what other people do that help what you're doing. That raises the mean by reducing drag.


It is subtle that he didn't just dismiss others, per se. He specifically disregarded what they were working on. If he was brought in to consult or help, he was now working on it so would help.

That is, he did not dismiss people. Or problems brought to him. He just did not worry about reinventing wheels. Odds are, other people are working on something and have made really smart contributions. Don't worry about that. Take advantage of it when you can, but largely don't worry about it.


> He just did not worry about reinventing wheels.

That is what annoys the fuck out of me with the software community. We actually reinvent constantly but everyone praises that we never should do it. It feels like a secret master plan of a hidden lobby that want to claim novelty and creativity for themselves.


They’re called consultants.

Every repackaged fad in software was pumped and sold by high paid consultants looking to sell the next buzz word to some big company who doesn’t understand software.

A bunch of them even did it to “lean startups” here in Toronto and attempted to apply it to absolutely everything where it didn’t fit or was just lightly repackaged agile. They use it to get gov ‘innovation’ credit here too which is another cancerous industry full of buzzword consultants.

Only occasionally by luck or in small hard fought increments do things actually get better via these hype trains.


Just accusing consultants it too simple. This mindset is prevalent in whole software culture. Think leftpad.


Leftpad was an example where we should reinvent the wheel.

Introducing a dependency on an NPM module for so little returned value is a lot different from a physicist or mathematician relying on a peer reviewed result from another academic.


Software is different. It's an implementation not an idea. You can't compare it to math, computer science, and physics, because irrelevant details matters.

Software is build relative to other software and used relative to other software. If you reinvent something already in use that is slightly incompatible with what already exists, you must also recreate all the other stuff from scratch.

Constant reinventing in software that starts from scratch with simple and clean software, then decade later it's finally useful but full of cruft just like the previous innovation with little or no benefit over it.

Another problem with software is the amount of uneducated innovators. Starting from 'scratch the itch' and not doing research is not a good idea.


There's a difference between a software firm that has the infrastructure to develop new products and a, for example, financial firm, that will consume products and maybe tie all of that together with their own custom solution. If it already exists, and being consumed and actively developed, it's way more efficient to just buy a license than to create your own solution.


The subtlety feels a bit more complex to me. It seems as though it's more about not blindly accepting the conclusions of others.

Creating his own understanding of underlying truth was his true talent.


This resembles the titular lesson from (Feynman’s second set of memoirs) “Why do you care what other people think?” ... when he had a breakthrough by stopping himself from caring about expectations and just started playing with what interested him. That led to the discovery which led to his Nobel prize.


Eh, Feynman put a lot of effort into caring about what other people thought for his whole life. As Murray Gell-Mann said in his obituary, “He surrounded himself with a cloud of myth, and he spent a great deal of time and energy generating anecdotes about himself.”


He’s talking about a chapter from Feynman’s autobiography where he explicitly practiced being an uncaring asshole and was surprised at the effectiveness.


Not sure if we talk about the same chapter, but I don’t think it’s fair to characterize this behavior as being an asshole. He realized that he cannot force himself to work on a big problem. Instead he needed to start small with some seemingly inconsequential problem. This later grew into a major discovery.


No I think we’re talking about separate chapters. Iirc (it’s been decades since I read it!) while dating after his first wife died someone advised him he was too “nice” and that women like alpha males who act like assholes. He decided to test that out both on his dates and professionally. He found it largely worked iirc—the dates were more successful, and people at work more responsive. But he didn’t like the kind of person it made him into so he stopped the test.

Still I suspect the experience must have ingrained in him an understanding of the effectiveness of not caring what other people think, even if you don’t have to be an asshole about it.


If he really didn't care what people thought, he wouldn't have told anecdotes and written books telling people how he didn't care what people thought about him. He wanted other people to think that he didn't care what other people thought.

In general, caring about what other people think is a good thing. The alternative is to be a sociopath.


From it’s wiki:

“Of note is the story of his first wife, Arline, who was diagnosed with tuberculosis. She died while Feynman was working on the Manhattan Project; the book's title is taken from a question she often put to him when he seemed preoccupied with his colleagues' opinions about his work, which echoed his earlier words to her.”


Ah ok. The lesson I'm thinking of is in his first memoir, "Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman" in the chapter "The Dignified Professor" where he was feeling quite down because he believes he can't live up to the expectations people have of him.

He makes a breakthrough in his thinking, when he realized that he's not responsible for other people's expectations. That's their mistake not his.


This is so liberating to realize this in our own lives. This applies to personal as well as business growth.


I'm a bit astounded by some of the more intellectual / academic interpretations of this story. The moral of this story, if there needs to be one, is to "follow your nose" - go where your knowledge and interests take you, and who cares what your peers think about it.


Not caring about what other people think is truly freeing. The other important ting to realize is people just don't care most of the time.


> Not caring about what other people think is truly freeing.

1. young people worry about what others think of them

2. middle age people stop caring what others think of them

3. old people realize that nobody is thinking of them


But #3 is a reality that slowly blossoms, not something you're born into as a young person. We are also all judging each other to different degrees, and some of these judgments do matter.


I feel like the advice "stop caring about what people think" is pretty useless for a lot of people.

Really, how much you care about what other people think depends on what phase of life you're in. In your adolescence, your social survival and who you get to date largely depends on the opinions of others.

When you hit your 30s, usually you have your own family and your own tribe, and other people just don't matter so much. You're in a different phase of life with different goals.

I guess it's possible to find a way to not care what people think in your 20s, too, but for those who DO care a lot, telling them not to care isn't helpful.


Giving advice to others is rarely helpful, even if it is excellent advice.


Depends on the audience. "Not caring about what other people think" may (but usually isn't) helpful advice to -most- pro musicians/composers... or other creatives hoping to land and retain an audience.


You have also made an important point, equal to Feynman's.


> At a certain point, I looked up and said, “Dick, [James Watson] must be either very smart or very lucky.

He ignores the third option: very dishonest. Which is what applied in this case.


Care to elaborate? Specifically, is there any doubt about Watson's contribution to the discovery of the double helix structure?


Well since Rosalind Franklin did the majority of the work, yes.


By what metric do you measure her work and the work of Watson and Crick?


The fact that she did all of it, and Watson had a friend in the same department she was in let him know when she got her data so he could force his way in and threaten her until she showed it to him, then rush home to publish first? Then spent the rest of his career trash talking her after she died young?

My fellow biology grad students when I was in grad school starting in 2005 pretty universally regarded Watson as a waste of oxygen.


This is not an accurate summary of events. The Xray image helped but required spiral maths and modeling.

On forgotten people what about Raymond Gosling (Franklin's PhD student) who took the famous photo:

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Photo_51

Watson was shown Gosling's photo by Gosling new supervisor after transferring from under Franklin's supervision.


Nope, he is a man, nothing interesting here.


Please provide your sources.

Referencing your fellow students' ideology driven groupthink doesn't qualify as such.


Did Watson and his co-author fail to credit her in their paper? If they credited her, but the media failed to give her attention, it's not his fault.


It's been a ongoing conversation for years how Watson and Crick disregarded Franklin's work, with a lot of evidence to support it.

Crick also wrote some scathing letters to Watson about how he was being disingenuous in this particular book [0].

[0]: https://profiles.nlm.nih.gov/ps/access/SCBBKN.pdf


Yes, they failed to credit her: https://pubmed.gov/13054692

In his own book, Watson admitted he had seen her work before publishing his result.


They published their papers in the same issue of Nature. This is the standard way of giving credit to both.



I feel that these Feynman-isms can hide just how good of a scientist he was.


The root of these Feynman-isms is exactly why he was a good scientist. He goes on at length about why this is in his various books.


If you read Feynman's nobel acceptance speech (https://www.nobelprize.org/prizes/physics/1965/feynman/lectu...) and some of the other interviews he gave about his QED work, you get the sense that his model of working was to listen carefully to what other people in the field were asserting and then devising a method for proving (or disproving) to himself with his own calculus driven methodology. He got really really good at it, and it lead him to understand the whole field of study better than anyone else. I can see how it could lead to the crisis described in the article, because he would have to spend less time analyzing the work of predecessors and more time pursuing, and then testing, his own hypotheses.


The fine print is also to master and absorb the knowledge of the other brilliant people which have come before you. Feynman certainly did this himself. His comment does not mean snooze in calculus while working on the Riemann hypothesis.

The "follow your own path" mantra is particularly important at the edge of human knowledge where established theories break down. As a physicist, I was personally surprised how much people blindly trust theoretical tools well outside their domain of original application. Even when the data is yelling at you "no that's wrong", people commonly persist because they read it in a book or heard it from a more senior professor. I believe this is the group think that Feynman was getting at.


Similarly I think it was Shannon.. that was operating differently from others. He wasn't organized and tried a lot of things as he saw fit, as long as it inspired him. He also did not care much about how it looked.


When you do what everyone else does, you get where everyone else gets.


This trick may work much, much better for people who are massively engaged in their fields and need a new perspective. I don't think either Feynman or Crick started disregarding everything when they were noobs.


"What do you care what other people think?" Is the most poignant question I've ever been asked in my life and for that I owe Mr. Feynman an inestimable debt. So few people as good questions.


“Dick, this guy must be either very smart or very lucky. He constantly claims he knew less about what was going on than anyone else in the field, but he still made the crucial discovery.”

Rosalind Franklin would probably disagree.


Franklin and her PhD students famous photo 51 was not enough. If it was, they would have the Nobel.

Crick's mathematical breakthrough to calculate the helix twist and playing around with molecular models was also necessary.


A directive seemingly at odds with the spirit of social media.


Who is the author of this blog? My searching hasn't been able to turn up a name.


Thanks for the post. It is exactly what I need right now.




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