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Feynman's Nobel Ambition (ohio-state.edu)
89 points by DanielRibeiro 1784 days ago | hide | past | web | 23 comments | favorite



This is why sometimes the best way to solve a problem is not to directly solve the problem, but just make an attempt to discover more about the problem.

The best example to study to in this case is the P Vs NP problem. I never understood how people can spend years trying to prove P=NP or P=!NP. Unless you already know the answer to question, to begin with a goal to prove it either way is not a wise way to achieve a solution to such a problem. If you try to discover more about this problem you likely to get to a result faster than than the actual proof simply because you can't prove/disprove what is not already proved/disproved. You can only hope to 'discover' a result.

So many times playing around, having fun and trying to discover things for sheer curiosity is likely to lead to more fascinating results.


I've found that the application of formalism to most any problem I have in my head takes me down paths I hadn't considered. Said another way, forcing a problem into a straight jacket tends to squeeze out the interesting bits.


I'm in the middle of reading Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman (again) and I must say there are many more short little anecdotes that leave you with the same giddy smile as this one.

In case it bears repeating yet again to anyone who hasn't read it, read it!


Absolutely seconded! I love that book so much. I frequently give copies of it as gifts in hopes that people will get half as much joy out of it as I have.

His writing style is just so infectious.


My dad gave me the book a while back, I think I shall go ahead and read it!


> .. and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I'm going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever ...

Gold.


Yeah it's a cool story. However be careful of affirming the consequent (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affirming_the_consequent) ... just because Feynman won the nobel prize because he decided to "play" for a while to reinvigorate his interest in Physics, doesn't mean that if you play for a while it will also result in something useful.

edit: upon reflection I'm not sure this is actually the "affirming the consequent" fallacy after all ... but I think the point is made nevertheless. Steve Jobs took a calligraphy class. Later he built Apple using some ideas from that. This doesn't mean if you take a calligraphy class you will go on to do something useful with it.


> just because Feynman won the nobel prize because he decided to "play" for a while to reinvigorate his interest in Physics, doesn't mean that if you play for a while it will also result in something useful.

This is awfully negative. I think most people on HN are smart enough to realize that the chances of winning a Nobel prize are very small; it doesn't need continual restatement.

I do like Feynman's attitude. I get the impression that many (not all) of today's physicists take themselves way too seriously. Looking up the old saying: "Academic politics is the most vicious and bitter form of politics, because the stakes are so low."


"I think most people on HN are smart enough to realize that the chances of winning a Nobel prize are very small; it doesn't need continual restatement."

I think few on HN realize that the chances of building a very successful company is very small ...


I think most of us realize it. But we also realize that the reward is so large that it counters the small probability to make a pretty high expectancy, above a regular programmer salary.

Let's say one startup out of the, say, ten thousand of serious startups founded every year will make it. For simplicity's sake, let's say that its founder will be a billionaire and the others will ALL gain their money back and then declare bankruptcy. Then 10^9/10^4=100000, which is better than most programmers' payout for that year.

TL;DR: It's improbable but it's worth it.


People read about Feynman because he was fun.

Who here has read a biography of Dirac? One summer he got a book of differential equations and worked them through. Other than research, he would take a walk on Sundays.

He also got a Nobel Prize in Physics. But few aspire to walk in his footsteps.


The parent said 'something useful' not 'Nobel prize'.


I think the moral of this tale is to stay as curious as possible. It was his childlike curiosity that unlocked the creativity. Do things for the sake of just doing things sometimes; don't worry about the why.


Or to put it another way — if you're blocked, do something else and maybe it will get you somewhere interesting or unblock you.

Sometimes it's better to work productively on the wrong thing than bang your head against a problem.


I think an important distinction is that he was not completely idle, as in playing cards, but solving a problem, albeit one with no clear relevance to anything.


I'm sorry but your warning is just depressing to read. "Tread with logic here" should not be something I read at the topic of the ycombinator comments... but I guess at this point I can't act surprised.


It's almost as real life isn't actually bound by logic and math as defined by contemporary humans.


Actually, Feynman warned against something very similar in `Surely You're Joking, ...'--cargo cult science. It had something to do with Pacific Islanders who'd try to make offerings to their gods to receive food and other supplies like they used to at one time. The gods never responded, of course, because those airdrops were only being made during WW2 because normal sea lanes were cut off (if I remember the story right).

So there is something to understanding the difference between the apparent cause of a thing and the real cause.

Still, I think you're missing the point in this particular case. Following in Feynman's footsteps wouldn't mean following one specific formula of `play' -> success, but more or keeping an open mind and letting the solution come to you. Which I think is the opposite of cargo cult science.


Absolutely, affirming the consequent, because he obviously would have built Apple without his life experiences leading up to that point, we can apply specific fallacy to his entire fallacy from a single specific example and feel smarter about our selves for never making such a silly mistake! Besides, we're all way to busy doing "real work" to do something as silly and wasteful as play.

Why do anything if it isn't for the profit of other people? Isn't it an accepted fact that our entire self worth is judged on how much value we provide to others? This goes hand and hand with the obviously true preposition that each person should be only self interested and through complicated interactions of the perfect market, we'll ultimately be helping other people! Because we're all identical and have the same drives, as it is written. The irony of this statement only proves that it's true. hallelujah!


Here's the full book available free online: http://www.chem.fsu.edu/chemlab/isc3523c/feyn_surely.pdf


I like the article. I find myself doing math problems all the time just for fun, I am glad that I am not the only one. Of course, I have not solved anything that would ever win me a Nobel prize. But I had fun. One day my 9 year old son and I derived Pi with approximations and a calculator, and my kid likes calculating geometry now. Better than watching TV all day.


Paula Scher gave a TED talk that expands on this idea a bit more. http://www.ted.com/talks/paula_scher_gets_serious.html Edit: Her point isn't so much about taking a break and doing something different, but that it's important to maintain the sense of play.


I wish more people would play with working out plate wobbles than World of Warcraft.




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