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What impossible meant to Richard Feynman (nautil.us)
323 points by dnetesn 48 days ago | hide | past | favorite | 129 comments



> He called out my mistakes using words like “crazy,” “nuts,” “ridiculous,” and “stupid.”

One of the things I liked when I was a student at Caltech is that (1) most people recognized they were surrounded by people at least as smart as they were, (2) most people knew that even the most brilliant people occasionally make mistakes (often even elementary mistakes), and (3) most realized that someone calling your idea "stupid" doesn't mean they were calling you stupid--they would freely admit that they too occasionally offered stupid ideas.

When you had a stupid idea someone would tell you, without a lot of tiptoeing around or trying to work in some praise too to balance things out. Just say it and we move on.

This would have been a quite plausible conversation at Caltech:

tzs: we should try X.

someone: that's a stupid approach. It can't work.

tzs: [thinks about it a moment] Yeah, you're right. Never mind.

Also plausible would have been a conversation that starts with the same first two sentences but ends like this:

tzs: no it is not.

Someone: [thinks about it a moment] Oh...yeah X should work. Let's try it.


Hurt feelings aside, sometimes a naysayer misunderstands, and a quick dismissal of an idea misses out on some good ideas, and some bad ideas that are still worth dissecting to figure out the reason they are bad.

Why not:

tzs: we should try X.

someone: that can't work because of some reason

[...]

We have emotions, and sometimes an emotion tells us an idea is bad, and that is more economical than analyzing carefully why an idea cannot work to ultimately arrive at the same conclusion that our gut already made.

But sometimes your gut can be misleading, and sometimes it is worth putting in the work to possibly discover an incorrect assumption. In both of those examples I don't really see any communication about the reason why something ultimately works or doesn't work. All I see is people thinking to themselves.


> We have emotions, and sometimes an emotion tells us an idea is bad, and that is more economical than analyzing carefully why an idea cannot work to ultimately arrive at the same conclusion that our gut already made.

I think this is exactly right. It also fits with what OP was saying that it is liberating to be in an environment where you can express your feelings like that.

Ylu shouldn't always just blurt out your gomut reactions, but if you have an environment of mutual trust, it's understandably a nice thing to be able to do.


> We have emotions, and sometimes an emotion tells us an idea is bad

And communicating those emotions is probably the most valuable thing a human can ever do! Those emotions is how you got where you are, they are what guide you when you yourself reason, not communicating them and helping others understand how you think and reason is such a waste!

Instead people here argue that we should be cold, make sure we don't communicate any emotions since then others might pick up on that, and boy it would be bad if others understands of you think! Really? Why would that be so bad?


Everything in moderation. Just because you feel an emotion doesn't mean you blurt it out to someone in your vicinity.

I'm interested in what even is the name of the emotion underlying "that idea is stupid". Is it surprise? Frustration? Anxiety?

I think it is valuable to communicate the thinking parts, not just the emotional parts. That was the main point I wanted to make.


Everything in moderation, including moderation.


That only works when both people are in on it.

If someone doesn't know "stupid" is code for "that idea is stupid" and not "you are stupid", it isn't a very effective communication mechanism.

People are complex, and it is not helpful to assume everyone should just go about their day to day as an emotionless robot. I mean, you can assume that, but unless you're a CEO or a famous Professor, you'll just be thought of as an asshole to be avoided.


It's an old saw, but we teach children the "sticks and stones" bromide because it's true. Having to bracket everything you say in qualifiers and conditions is why press releases are completely unreadable dreck.

If you're in a field where Things Have To Get Done, stopping every few words to make sure nobody's getting their feelings hurt is a cost with very little benefit, other than airy and nebulous principles like "inclusivity." Not to mention you will never--and I mean never--get people of a certain temperament to go along with an ever-changing set of rules designed to inflict zero emotional distress. And the people of that temperament are very likely to be in technical roles.

I mean, you can want it to be different, but you might as well want the sky to rain cheese.


Well firstly it's not actually true, what we teach children, in that words absolutely can hurt.

And it's not really hard to be respectful:

>"That's a stupid idea"

versus

>"That idea simply will never work"

identical information transfer, same amount of time taken, simply subtracting the implicit disrespect.

As someone who works in academia (physics no less), IMO the problem is that some people are complete fucking arseholes because for some reason being a complete fucking arsehole in academia is accepted, and the problem is not that some people are sensitive. It's actually not hard to be nice. It's mostly just stuff you learned as a child. I don't accept that being a bit of a cunt makes you a better physicist or makes a team more productive. Having said that working in academia has certainly thickened my skin. I've worked with some legendarily awful wankers in my short time. I don't get phased any more, but that's not necessarily a good thing.


> >"That's a stupid idea"

> versus

> >"That idea simply will never work"

The second seems much much worse than the first to me. Why would you say that an idea will simply never work? Maybe it will and you made a mistake? Makes you sound like an ass. With the first you make it clear that the idea is dumb, but you aren't saying that the idea will never work, so maybe it still will work? It gives the signal that maybe you should think it through again, but doesn't completely dismiss the value of your work like the second.


Well if the idea is genuinely stupid then it will never work? I am operating on the assumption that someone has actually said something stupid. That's the given. If they've said something clever then obviously all bets are off and this is just a pointless discussion. And if you're not sure if it's stupid or will work, why would you say either of those things? You're arguing for an edge case based on a condition that should never even arise in the first place. Also, we're not talking about work, we're talking about ideas.


> Well if the idea is genuinely stupid then it will never work? I am operating on the assumption that someone has actually said something stupid.

Stupid things still works from time to time. Why are you so dismissive here? Can't you try to be a bit more understanding of people and ideas and your own ability to sometimes fail to recognize potential things? Sometimes you are stupid in the moment like that. Sometimes the whole world is stupid and failed to recognize a great idea.


Well in fairness if there was any slight hint of ambiguity as you suggest then I simply wouldn't call their idea stupid or suggest it could never work. I would just ask them more questions. I think that's a good way to operate. It's worked well for me. I just think it's disrespectful and rude to call someone or their idea stupid. Most would agree. Operate outside of basic social mores at your own risk I suppose. As I say, people in physics disproportionately have terrible social skills so you can just really learn into your job title, if that's what you're into. The rest of us in the field who prefer to observe the sort of very very basic things our parents taught us when we were children will just roll our eyes.


We call that "subtext". As a learned professional and recognized expert in your field, saying "simply" and "never" to a student has a chance of being misunderstood as fact instead of a turn of phrase.

Being aware of that and saying it anyway, I would personally use it as a teaching moment. If they seemed to quietly accept my words as a truth handed down from an authority instead of as a challenge to a (potential) peer, I'd point out that as a scientist they should have asked me "why".

It mainly and generally comes down to relationships and communication. Anyone who doesn't understand what I mean when I say a thing, anything, can't be relied on to be my pupil. However, they can usually be taught. That doesn't excuse me from not ensuring I've been understood in the first place, but it's far less taxing to expect others to attempt to become accustomed to your meanings when your brain is needed for other things than it is to twist your view of reality so that RightSpeak is the only acceptable method of communication.

I've never understood why some people seem to hate it when I say this, there's an idiom where I'm from that "some people would rather coat the world in leather than wear moccasins". Communication veganism is such a destructive idea if you've ever actually taken the time to consider it, but it doesn't seem to stop people from trying.


It's not communication veganism to simply not insult people. It's a feature of our societies that has existed since before societies existed. I struggle to think of a single situation where insulting someone is pleasant for the receiver, by definition. That you force or expect people to work around your quirky (at best) communication habits is neither here or there.

> but it's far less taxing to expect others to attempt to become accustomed to your meanings when your brain is needed for other things than it is to twist your view of reality so that RightSpeak is the only acceptable method of communication

What you mean like the stuff your mum and dad taught you when you were 4 years old and requires zero conscious effort because you should be polite to people by default anyway? Good heavens... what a terrible burden! The cross you those RightSpeakers make you bare! Tyranny! Is shitting in a toilet and not in your pants also a great burden for you?


I don't know. "That idea simply will never work." will hurt the fragole person just as efficiently as "This idea is stupid".

I think better communication us skip your general assesment of validity and form the objections you have to the idea as your questions about the idea.

Or just say "it's stupid" if you are in a hurry and don't care about offending the person but don't expect great interactions in the future.


It hurt the fragile person, yes, but let's think of the average person. Calling someone's idea stupid will reasonably insult the average person and make them think you're a cock, unless you know them well enough (in which case all bets are off). I am by no means advocating catering to the lowest common denominator, I'm simply opposed to throwing out all social conventions that have basically been with us for as long as verbal communication has existed because it's "efficient" (no proof either that it's actually efficient). At that rate the OP is simply asking us to stop being humans. It's just nonsense.


> It's just nonsense.

Ah, I see what you did there.

How different is this from “it’s stupid”? Or is there an approved list of ideas one may call nonsense, stupid, or braindead?


Well, if I were to come across someone IRL who argued that we didn't need to be nice to people and observe basic mores that have most likely existed for at least as long as humans have existed, I'd call it nonsense there too, but that's never happened. There's something about the internet that brings out the ridiculously hot takes. It's orders of magnitude more nonsensical (and harmful) than any single bad idea I've ever come across in my time in academia.


In the example being discussed, it's faster to simply change "That's a stupid idea, it won't work because X" to "That won't work because X".

If Things Have To Get Done, why waste time making an insulting judgement instead of simply getting to the point?


"Not to mention you will never--and I mean never--get people of a certain temperament to go along with an ever-changing set of rules designed to inflict zero emotional distress."

Why not? Because they'll throw tantrums, whining about how it's just so unfair that they can't call people stupid? Too bad. They can suck it up and do their jobs- a part of which is effective communication- or they can leave.


>or they can leave

That being the key thing here. They won't throw tantrums--that's pretty much the exclusive domain of the sorts of people who want to control how people speak--but they will just go elsewhere. Or stop mentoring people, because it's more trouble than dealing with thin-skinned people.

Interestingly, I'm not suggesting that people have to be brusque or short. The sort of person who demands speech codes is the sort who will brook no personal interactions other than the perfectly harmless and anodyne, which seems pretty authoritarian to me. Quite a few of the technically minded do not care for authoritarianism, and they tend to be way out on the right tail of the Bell curve. You lose those at your risk.


The strong phrasing you use in your comments betray that you are the one showing emotions here. I totally get where those are coming from, and certainty share some of your exasperation, yet I believe this world view of thin-skinned versus thick-skinned is a fantasy.


Nothing wrong with showing emotions. Irritation is an emotion. There is a difference between showing emotion and throwing a tantrum. E.g., you might notice at no point have I demanded anybody's resignation or their groveling public apology.

The whole point of the article was a man's journey to understand Feynman's personal definitions of words, which were based on how he thought and understood problems. Knocking all the sharp corners from interpersonal communications means you value conformity over diversity of thought. That seems a poor tradeoff to me.


Your whole post is stupid.

See what I mean?

> Not to mention you will never--and I mean never--get people of a certain temperament to go along with an ever-changing set of rules

In a community that embraced NPM, Gulp, Grunt, Webpack, and god knows what else in a span of 10 years?

> we teach children the "sticks and stones" bromide because it's true.

We tell them that because tackling bullying is too hard. And it makes us feel better when we verbally lash out at our children ("It's not like I'm really hurting them!").


If you're in a field where "Things Have To Get Done", why add superfluous words like "That is stupid, it won't work because X", when "it won't work because X" is sufficient and is easier on the ears to the listener?


Why waste time say lot word when few word do trick?

It's not the word count, it's the density of meaning.


> stopping every few words to make sure nobody's getting their feelings hurt is a cost with very little benefit

Fortunately, nobody is saying to stop every few words to confirm the consent of your interlocutor, so that's just a stupid fucking straw man, isn't it?

> other than airy and nebulous principles like "inclusivity."

Ah, I see. You're one of those people on a perpetual crusade against "political correctness" (funnily enough, an airy and nebulous principle!)

> If you're in a field where Things Have To Get Done

Man I work in academia, so I assure you I've met a million guys of your type. Guys who are oh-so smart and oh-so intelligent (as per their own assessment of course) and have a planet-sized ego, who think they are so above the riffraff and their attention is oh-so important that they don't even owe their colleagues the courtesy of basic manners.

Nope, sorry, you're not so special that you can't say "I think that's a bad idea [because X]" instead of "That's stupid [because of X]".

Excuse me the brashness of my post, but hey, I'm trying to correspond to your desired level of discussion :)


We teach them this concept because the world is full of a-holes who won't take the bare minimum step of being a decent person to others and consider their feelings or how their words may have someone feel.

I work in a field where Things Have TO Get Done. We pride ourselves on directness, honesty, and precision. NONE OF THOSE THINGS REQUIRE YOU TO BE A DICK. You don't use words like "stupid". You phrase your criticism surgically to be specific about the idea and not the person.

Too many people don't want to learn social graces and use the excuse that they are just efficient direct and honest to justify being a dick.


Eh, I think a big part of getting things done is to creating an environment where people feel comfortable getting things done.


I think that is largely a difficult and expensive task, since there is no universally accepted definition of "feeling comfortable", and it is impossible to comfort a snowflake.

I'd rather be happy letting people go than chasing some elusive target in the name of political correctness. Sooner or later, I will either end up being miserably alone or with enough smart people who just get things done. I think this risk is worth taking.


There is also no universally accepted definition of "being an asshole", but nevertheless you know it when you see it, right?

Maybe some fragile snowflakes should just get over their hysterical emotional need to feel comfortable, and focus on doing real work and getting stuff done. But by the same token, maybe some assholes should get over their pathetic emotional need to belittle others, and stick to what contributes to the work.

There is a principle for robustly implementing computer communication protocols called Postel's law: be conservative in what you output, be liberal in what you accept. I think the principle applies equally well to human communication protocols.


I don't know - not calling other people's ideas at work "stupid" seems pretty obvious to me, it doesn't take some great amount of mental effort to just call things "bad" or even "not a good idea."

Also, it's possible to have smart people and a failure culture and fail. If people are afraid of posing their ideas because they think they will be shot down as "stupid", that damages your culture.


Calling “bad braindead pile of stupid shit” “not so good” devalues “good”.


Well I'm glad I don't work with you :)


A part and parcel of being a professional is being able to successfully work with people you may not personally like, as long as their and your work outputs are not being actively and measurably harmed by said personal traits.

I could probably work with you and not mind you calling my work stupid if you could also back it up. Learn something every day, you know.


> It's an old saw, but we teach children the "sticks and stones" bromide because it's true. Having to bracket everything you say in qualifiers and conditions is why press releases are completely unreadable dreck.

How very 1940's of you, is it really that inconvenient for you to be considerate?


Real respect is different from avoiding the magic-words.


But if you want to communicate that you respect someone you will avoid the magic words because it's impossible for them to read your mind and understand your true intentions. Just empathy isn't it? If someone calls you a cunt but in their heart of hearts deeply respects you, that's pretty useless isn't it? Because it's impossible to know what is truly in their heart, and you can only judge them by what they say and what they do. If you respect someone why would you communicate in such a way that they could reasonably come to the conclusion that you in fact don't respect them at all?


I don't think that a professional environment setting expectations for how to communicate criticism is as difficult or unrealistic as the sky raining cheese.


Reminds of this exchange from the movie Whiplash:

Andrew Neyman: But is there a line? You know, maybe you go too far and discourage the next Charlie Parker from ever becoming Charlie Parker?

Terence Fletcher: No, man, no. Because the next Charlie Parker would never be discouraged.

I am convinced Fletcher's attitude is not only morally right, but factually correct. The strongest steel is forged in the hottest fire.


There’s a bit of difference. Terrence Fletcher probably wouldn’t accept a comeback containing language just as harsh. And this is the important bit.

I’m all for throwing many kinds of words around when working with peers. Once there’s a significant power difference, ouch. Unless you know each other so well you can safely assume you’re both above it.


Would it be a crazy idea to consider that deploying emotional intelligence has less obvious, higher order effects, that make up for the initial investment?


It's not "code". Saying "that idea is stupid" is different from saying "you are stupid". Nobody has to be "in on" anything.

However, unless one is used to this frank style of communication, I'm sure it can be off-putting.


"used to" is basically the same thing as "in on it".

Moreover, context matters a lot with language style. One can't just lift Feynman's way of talking, transplant it somewhere else and expect it to be effective.


You have incorrectly interpreted the thread. It literally starts with Feynman saying, "That's stupid," and the subsequent poster claims that it is to be implied the idea is stupid, not the person. I point out that lacking "that idea", it becomes code.


It's not code. "That's stupid" is short for "that idea is stupid." There's no way to change it to "that idea is stupid and therefore you are too" without the person making the leap on their own. It only says how insecure someone is to assume that.


It's not much of a leap. "Stupid" is a judgement of intelligence. Ideas don't have intelligence, people do.

To say something is "stupid" is to say that's it's the product of unintelligent thinking. Somebody calling my idea "stupid" may not be saying that I'm universally stupid, but they're at least saying that I was momentarily stupid to suggest that idea. Same thing if you call my idea "retarded" or "idiotic", or conversely, "smart" or "clever".

The argument could be made that we should all be rational beings of pure logic, incapable of taking personal offense or being emotionally slighted or discouraged by such judgements. But we're not. And if we were, we would also be capable of limiting our output to objective conclusions such as "that won't work" rather than subjective judgements such as "it was foolish to suggest that it could".


> The argument could be made that we should all be rational beings of pure logic, incapable of taking personal offense or being emotionally slighted or discouraged by such judgements. But we're not.

Which is exactly why it is fine to call an idea stupid. Everyone knows that people are fallible, so they know that your idea can be stupid without you being stupid. You taking that personally is stupid though, as it implies you think it is possible to be infallible.


> without the person making the leap on their own. It only says how insecure someone is to assume that.

Not necessarily. There are social environments where things aren't said directly, but rather communicated through choice of words, body language and actions. People can make their thoughts abundantly clear without saying them directly, and some would expect you to understand even if they don't communicate it directly.

Figuring out if a person/group says things directly or indirectly is part of the code. It's not necessarily about insecurity. Even a person secure in their own abilities can benefit from understanding when people communicate heavily between the lines.


I think this is moving the goalposts. Yes, I agree that nonverbal communication matters. And I understand it's possible there is some code to communication, similar to how different cultures use words differently. But that's not what's being discussed.

"That's stupid" is referring to something being stupid, not someone. You need to invent additional context to interpret this differently.


> But that's not what's being discussed. "That's stupid" is referring to something being stupid, not someone.

What I meant is that people don't only ever say you're stupid by super-directly saying "you're stupid". "That's stupid" is not a big leap. Yes, context is key to interpretation.


- Hey, I have this idea where xyz...

- That's stupid

It's clearly talking about the idea. No one says "That's X" when referring to someone. When someone shows me a painting and I say "That's beautiful", I'm obviously referring to the painting, right?


If you show someone a painting you made and they tell you "That's beautiful", you may reasonably conclude that they think you're a good painter.

Similarly, if you come up with an idea and someone tells you it's stupid, you might conclude (especially if it's a recurring pattern) that they don't think you are very smart. If that is not the conclusion they wanted you to come to, it is on them for not communicating better


Saying that a particular painting is good does not imply that everything that person has painted is good.

Saying that a particular painting is bad does not imply that everything that person has painted is bad.


No. It is not obvious. That's the whole point of this discussion.


It’s not obvious? So there is a chance “that’s beautiful” means that the person showing him the painting is beautiful? I’m mystified.


> So there is a chance “that’s beautiful” means that the person showing him the painting is beautiful?

No, but I think the choice of adjective is important. Suppose instead of saying "That's a beautiful painting" I said "That's a masterful painting".

The sentence structure is the same. The adjective is still modifying "painting". I'm still saying the painting is good. But the word I chose more directly implies a judgement of the artist: I am describing the painting as the product of a master painter.

I get the same impression from hearing "stupid idea". Stupid is a description of intelligence, thinking ability, aptitude: attributes which lie with the idea's originator, not with the idea itself.


You wouldn't say "that's a stupid person" unless you were talking about a 3rd person


How is that not obvious? Do you hold that position?


So can you explain exactly what the "that" in "That's stupid" is referring to?


You are free to say whatever you want and speak however you like. Just remember not everyone fills in the blanks the same way, and when being critical it is important to be specific. If that bothers you and you want to grind away at it to prove your way of speaking is correct, good luck with that. I hope you end up working with people who feel the same way.


You didn't answer the question, and instead leapt to something hand wavey about how people fill in blanks.

Nobody is grinding away at anything, perhaps other than yourself. It seems many people here are mystified by your unyielding interpretation of a two word sentence and nobody can seem to get a straight answer out of you, other than repeating the truism that "it's not obvious".


It still makes you a rude jerk in most situations.


If I throw a bad pass in a ball game, and it gets called out as such, does that imply that they consider me a 'bad person'? Possibly some totally irredeemable piece of shit that should be locked up and not around children?

Or is a bad pass, like a the bad idea thrown out there, just that?


Ok first - no it doesn't make you an irredeemable piece of shit or a bad person. But if you do it in a weird way it does mean that you're someone who's lacking in social skills. We're talking in abstract ideas so I can't possibly know what you meant but:

blitzar: what the fuck is wrong with you, smcl, that's two goals you've cost us because you lost your man

and

blitzar: for fuck's sake, smcl, focus, watch #11 he's killing us with those runs. we're not out of the game but you need to step it up

are two ways you as a teammate could probably admonish me for costing our team a couple of goals. Both involve swearing, both are blunt and establish some fault. One is useless ranting, and will probably heap misery on the teammate and make them wish for the final whistle. The other is relatively productive and could possibly help (depending on how useless or hungover I am). So it depends, if by "called out" you mean something like #1 then I strongly disagree. If it's #2 then cool, I'd like you as a teammate :)

But on that original topic, I think that when someone says they think "that's a stupid idea" is unconstructive or damaging, it doesn't mean they want to be coddled, given a treat and told they're special. It just means that's a needlessly confrontational approach. If that person at the top of this thread is really on the same wavelength with some people that they can openly talk like that, more power to them. But I suspect what's actually happening is a handful of students were talking that way, and most people secretly resented it and didn't enjoy being around them because of how they acted.

Then again, if it's coming from Feynmann I imagine there's something in the tone, delivery or context that would soften the blow :)


It's a line. I would not want ideas in my workplace to regularly be called "stupid" but I wouldn't mind "bad" nearly as much.


In the USA it does, in Europe it's way more normal.


If someone mistakenly interprets "that's a stupid idea" as "you're stupid", then that's on them. You can't stop someone from thinking the world revolves around them like that.


In the article, the author says "The harsh words stung at first, and caused me to question whether I belonged in theoretical physics."

What prevented the author taking this to heart? "In the next breath, he would always be encouraging me to try a different approach and inviting me to return when I made progress."

The appropriate takeaway is that when you call someone's ideas stupid, that does make them feel stupid unless you counteract it with positive feedback in the same conversation.


This! Also, tone and general behaviour matters. I think many comments here mistake this beautiful article for advice to use words like this.

I’ve read both his biographic books multiple times, read into the Feynman Lectures and watched many an interview and other stuff with and about him.

If I’d ever gotten to meet him (he’s a top candidate on my “if you could have dinner with any person, living or dead” list) and he’d have called an idea of mine stupid, I’m pretty sure that my reaction wouldn’t have been to be hurt. I would have hoped for him to explain to me why it’s stupid or give me a hint on where to look to find out for myself. Context matters. Character matters.

Don’t call people stupid. Don’t call things (or ideas) stupid unless you can explain what’s stupid about the thing or idea and why.

If you’re passionate about something, try to appreciate when someone tells you, without euphemism, why it won’t work.

If anyone has an idea on how one could get to travel back and meet him, we can find out together why it’s stupid. Or “impossible” :)


The amount of abusive behaviour that gets normalized in Academia is outlandish. As is the hero-worship that becomes associated with stories of geniuses like Feynman.

> The harsh words stung at first, and caused me to question whether I belonged in theoretical physics. But I couldn’t help noticing that Dick did not seem to take the critical comments as seriously as I did. In the next breath, he would always be encouraging me to try a different approach and inviting me to return when I made progress.

This is survivor bias through and through. Plenty of people faced the same harsh words, and took them personally, and left theoretical physics. You might say "good riddance", they wouldn't have belonged or succeeded in the first place, but I don't believe that's true.

Feynman came up in a different time, so let's look forwards not backwards.

There is a way that you can be 1) direct, 2) precise, 3) honest, 4) efficient without being a dick, being rude, aggressive, and unintentionally demoralizing others.


> someone: that's a stupid approach. It can't work.

Can't you just say "it can't work"? What additional information is communicated when you say it's stupid?

If both people are on board with this conversation style then obviously it's fine, but I know lots of smart people and none of them communicate like this, even when they're telling me clearly and concisely that I'm wrong.


That it can't work because of a retroactively obvious critical flaw, or it's overcomplicated, or something.


We have to be careful, there are toxic people who would constantly dismiss other people into submission by calling their ideas stupid repeatedly. This is abusive and it better not be permitted. They could use a more civil word for it. Here's the thing, I don't mind people I'm familiar with (and who earned their trust) calling me or my ideas stupid, but if it comes from other people they don't really have that privilege, they ought to measure up their words, especially if do it repeatedly where it could become downright harmful.


This kind of pattern is also quite common at MIT (or was when I was an undergrad). I found it great.

However your caution is warranted. Even if the person saying “that’s dumb” is a nice person the listener might not know that, or might have been conditioned by someone like what you describe.

Years ago I was on a panel: there was an organizer (who chose the participants) and me. The first words I spoke were, “I think [organizer] is completely wrong and in fact has things utterly backwards.” We spoke for a while and as we walked off stage, Organizer said with a smile “That was great. I think it went very well”.

As we parted an audience member came up and said they were shocked at how hostile I had been to Organizer.

I happened to know both people and they had attended MIT as well.

Moral: jargon is contextual jargon, even if it consists of ordinary words. Think of your audience.


Yes exactly. I'd endear a friend back and forth laughingly calling each other POS but in our context it was actually ok banter. We were even talking about what a good friendship we have so we can allow each other to use those words and cross a line without any real threat. Such are the contexts that are okay for this type of thing.


Advice for Australians in the US: you probably call someone you don’t like a bastard and call your best mate a real bastard. Don’t learn the hard was as I did: things do not work that way in the USA.


Speaking as an audience, it's the "completely wrong" and the "utterly backwards" that makes it seem hostile & personal rather than simply factual.


The problem with this approach is that it pushes out a lot of people, especially women and minorities. When you are conditioned from birth to believe that you belong somewhere, a bit of criticism like this is easily brushed off. White men especially are used to seeing board rooms full of similar looking people, or equally homogenous computer engineering teams. We don't often stop to question if we belong in a STEM field. We assume it.

When you've had to fight for your seat at the table, having your idea called stupid by a high ranking faculty member might rattle you enough to leave. Not because you don't deserve to be there, or are somehow intrinsically less capable of receiving criticism, but because you don't have the misplaced confidence of some of your peers.


I'm not a scientist so I'm speculating, however: if one doesn't have that... weird level of self confidence to detach their ideas from themselves, can they actually make it in science? I'd guess no. Does society want people who don't have a lot of self confidence in science? Won't they end up fudging data to conceal the fact that their hypothesis is wrong, rather than just acknowledging the fact and moving along, feeling just as smart as yesterday?


While we celebrate individuals, in my experience real work is done by teams of people, and there’s lots of research that shows heterogenous teams perform better than homogenous ones.

I’ve seen teams where a single toxic “rock star” destroys productivity, and I’ve been on teams of quiet, thoughtful individuals where we somehow become much more than the sum of our parts. And often excess self-confidence can become a barrier to accepting constructive criticism.


Are you a scientist?


Anyone can fudge data to get a result that objective evidence doesn't support.

The more self-confident scientists might actually be more likely to fudge data - they can self-justify by thinking "this idea must be true, so even if I put fake data in now, it doesn't matter because eventually real data will emerge to support it"


"this idea must be true" - this is the opposite of the type of person I'm talking about. There are some people who are able to completely detach their ideas from themselves, never losing confidence in themselves even if they lose confidence in one of their ideas.


Much of the conversation so far in the comments has ignored the context of that sentence in the article:

> He called out my mistakes using words like “crazy,” “nuts,” “ridiculous,” and “stupid.”

> The harsh words stung at first, and caused me to question whether I belonged in theoretical physics. But I couldn’t help noticing that Dick did not seem to take the critical comments as seriously as I did. In the next breath, he would always be encouraging me to try a different approach and inviting me to return when I made progress.

If you have many repeated interactions with the same people where you make it clear you don't think they personally are stupid, and also you are almost never wrong when you call something crazy/nuts/ridiculous/stupid, perhaps you can get away with it. If one of those things is not true, it is not a good way of communicating (in North America, at least).


> most realized that someone calling your idea "stupid" doesn't mean they were calling you stupid--they would freely admit that they too occasionally offered stupid ideas.

Surprising that only one comment has highlighted what I'm about to say so far, so I'll repeat it:

This is great if you know you're in a community where you know that people say an idea is "stupid" they are being intellectually honest and not manipulative. The number of such communities out there is a rounding error near zero, and likely has always been - even within academic circles.

The reality is that there are plenty of people who will say an idea is "stupid" because they have an ulterior motive, and they thrive in places that normalize the use of such phrases in the name of intellectual honesty. This is clear when you look at the numbers: There exist very few places where you can reliably accept that calling an idea is stupid means little more than that an idea is stupid. For context, I went to an engineering program ranked higher than Caltech's equivalent department, and this technique was definitely weaponized there.

I don't doubt that Caltech is as you describe it, and it is indeed really nice to be in such an environment. However, trying to use this as a general policy elsewhere will very likely end up attracting and fostering truly toxic people.


Fresh in my mind after reading two bios of Feynman, is when he, a newly minted PhD from Princeton, arrives at Los Alamos and tells Hans Bethe his idea is stupid and can’t possibly work.


When Niels Bohr was on a visit to Princeton, he wanted young Feynman's personal input, because he knew Feynman would tell the truth rather than be intimidated into agreeing with every word.


I fear Caltech is one of the very few educational institutions that kept its scientific integrity in the last decade. Even Princeton is seeming going down in the woke wake. Unfortunately, Caltech is not for everyone in terms of work and dedication involved. Which presents a difficult dilemma for the graduating high school students: where do you even apply for the undergrad studies?


The "woke wake"?

Just get your mind out of the culture wars, I guess. I went to one of these schools and was fine just putting my head down and studying. People are way too overconcerned over these things that don't really matter at all. The idea that "cancellation" is anything new is an example of a "stupid" idea.

At my school, for instance, some people will get "cancelled" who I don't think should get cancelled (Chelsea Manning), others will get "cancelled" rightfully in my mind (Milo Yiannopoulos, maybe Charles Murray but haven't thought too much about it). This is nothing even remotely new, and I don't pay it too much mind - regardless of which faction is getting cancelled today.


Don’t assume my mind is in the culture wars. I don’t care about people you mentioned above. I care about academic and research integrity of our institutions.


Okay? I don't think that there is any unique attack on academic and research integrity of our institutions. If those institutions could survive jim crow, etc. I'm guessing they can survive whatever is happening right now.


I heard teachers are so scared of being vilified by students, they don't bother to state a fact, or even argue anymore.

It's not just an argument in class; it's plastered all over the internet and could have far reaching future problems for their future.

I like the fact students have more of a say.

In my day, I had a chemistry teacher harrass me to the point I needed to change schools. I remember going to a school counselor, and the counselor said, "Dr. Bezergian is crazy, and you are the type he likes to go after. At the time, I didn't understand "the type". It turns out he would make life in his class difficult if certain students that didn't return his advances. I started putting it all together when I was in a bar celebrating finishing second semester of Organic Chem. after enrolling in a different college. I was giving my usual Dr. Berzergian stories. A guy from another table chimed in and knew the PhD. He filled me in on his personality picadillos.

My point is even if we had the internet back then I probally wouldn't have said anything about the guy, but the other guys who had to switch schools for chem, or just drop out of college, probally would have posted something about the man. Hell, we woukd probally have our tuition paid over his sexuality and the way he tried to get his dates?

I lost my point.

I guess it's just discussing topics in class shouldn't be posted on the internet, unless those topics are causing damage to the students. I guess we will argue over whats bad enough to ruin a teacher's reputation in school, and socially?


You don't have to call a stupid idea "stupid". You also don't have to work in praise or tiptoe around it. The Socratic method is quite good at exposing bad ideas. And it (mostly) doesn't result in hurt feelings or egos. When done well, everyone (even the questioner) can learn something.


I have to say, it's lazy to call an idea stupid with no explanation. That's ok if you're talking to a friend you know very well, who you are comfortable being lazy with, and vice versa. If you don't have that relationship, it's being an asshole.

Just as easy to say, that doesn't make sense because X.


I don't doubt that was your personal experience, but I strongly doubt that everyone would behave like that all the time with everyone else.


People who barely finished high school routinely call each other "stupid" or "ridiculous" and it has nothing to do with them realizing any of your points. Many subcultures are rude or swear a lot or insult other a lot. This does not imply they call everything stupid because they are too humble while being aware of how intelligent they are. This just means that Caltech had using words like "stupid" normalized.

Frankly, this just shows that Caltech student can twist run-of-the-mill rude behavior into tale of their own greatness.


I finished high school and college, and my friends and I routinely communicate with each other in this way. I also never went to Caltech.

Any other odd blanket statements?


That is my point. Nothing special about people using insulting language.

Only some groups, here including some Caltech students, then claim that it somehow shows how great, intelligent and secure in their intelligence they are. You really need to be full of yourself to conclude that saying "stupid" is somehow consequence of unique greatness.


>One of the things I liked when I was a student at Caltech

How long ago was that?


in the age of diversity hires I can't imagine calling someone's ideal stupid and still having a job


Yup, one reason why the bar is getting lower by the day across Universities and workplaces.


An enjoyable read. I think I am suspicious of the usual fawning over Feynman that I see (maybe because I am suspicious of any cult of personality — I think we all know Feynman was not without flaws).

I found the description of the author's interactions with Feynman to be truly delightful. There is a hint of worshipfulness in the set-up but I think the infamous physicist delivered.


> hint of worshipfulness

"my scientific idol, the legendary physicist"

Certainly a strong hint, isn't it?


True, it's strong, but not unreasoned — he was describing his attitude as a student who knew at the time only of Feynman's reputation, having not yet had many direct human interactions with the "legendary physicist".

Sad that he's gone so those interactions are no longer possible in this world. It's wonderful to read how an obviously brilliant scientist in his own right treasured those times with Feynman, and how often we read such accounts here on HN.


Cult of personality is quite an exaggeration.


To me the most amazing thing about Feynman was his enthusiasm for relatively mundane things such as the Rio Carnival, stripclubs, the bongos, painting and the fixation for going to Tuva which is a place forgotten by both god and men.

You'd think a guy who accomplished the things he accomplished would find it harder and harder to become enthusiastic about stuff, because of the effect of the hedonistic treadmill.

Somehow I think his biggest accomplishment was his ability to slow down the hedonistic tradmill.


As I recall the stories, his playing of the bongos wasn't exactly mundane; if anything, he was an expert at establishing eccentricity as a personal identity.


I mean, c'mon.....with all due respect for bongo players...reaching excellence in that field is also mundane as society doesn't exactly put bongo players on a pedestal


I wasn't so much concerned with his technical skill as his method of going about it, which was about as eccentric as one can get.


> as his method of going about it

What do you mean by this? did he have an unusual way of playing the bongos/learning the bongos or something? (or do you just mean because playing the bongos is something slightly unusual?)


If I were to identify anything with the hedonistic treadmill it wouldn't be integrals.


I think, Heinlein in "Have spacesuit - will travel" mentions something to the tune of "math is worse than peanuts". Integrals could be holding attention quite well - just check Youtube channels with explanations of everything, or MOOCs which have rather robust audience.


It's not so much that there's no aspect of math that is pleasing, as it is that whatever it is, it's exempt from the hedonistic treadmill.


It's not math. It's you solving, winning and conquering math problems, and beating other people to the solution.


Precisely. The more one learns the more unsolved problems one discovers, each more brain-stimulating than the last!


you mean, hedonic treadmill


If there's one thing I'd associate with the hedonic treadmill, it wouldn't be remembering the difference between hedonic and hedonistic.


stripclubs? Edit: OK yes there were a bunch of stripclubs lol


you mean, hedonic treadmill


Good read. Here's the answer to the title question:

> I also learned that “impossible,” when used by Feynman, did not necessarily mean “unachievable” or “ridiculous.” Sometimes it meant, “Wow! Here is something amazing that contradicts what we would normally expect to be true. This is worth understanding!”


Lewis Carrol wrote in Alice in Wonderland, the red Queen saying “sometimes I believe 6 impossible things before breakfast.”



Wow, I took a class from Paul Steinhardt when I was starting my PhD in physics at Penn.

I think it was in him in his class who asked us how planes flew. I raised my hand and said the Bernoulli principle. He showed how despite schools teaching it forever, it couldn't be right. Otherwise planes couldn't fly upside down but they do.


After the volumes of Feynman material I've consumed, Feynman and his students still keep me up with wonder. This was a great read, and I'll have to start digging into quasicrystals now


TL;DR: “Wow! Here is something amazing that contradicts what we would normally expect to be true. This is worth understanding!”

I don't think this is exclusive to Feynman, or surprising at all. I know for example my friends and I have used this "meaning" since forever, and I'm sure we are not the only ones.




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