from the foreword of The Pleasure of Finding things out by
Richard P Feynman

 

THE PLEASURE OF FINDING THINGS OUT

Richard P. Feynman

 The_Pleasure_of_Finding_Things_4_16_2013_1_13_40_PM

 

This is the edited transcript of an interview with

Feynman made for the BBC television program Horizon

in 1981, shown in the United States as an episode of

Nova. Feynman had most of his life behind him by this

time (he died in 1988), so he could reflect on his

experiences and accomplishments with the perspective

not often attainable by a younger person.

 

Epaulettes and the Pope

One of the things that my father taught me besides physics

(LAUGHS), whether it’s correct or not, was a disrespect for

respectable . . . for certain kinds of things. For example,

when I was a little boy, and a rotogravure–that’s printed

pictures in newspapers–first came out in the New York

Times, he used to sit me again on his knee and he’d open a

picture, and there was a picture of the Pope and everybody

bowing in front of him. And he’d say, “Now look at these

humans. Here is one human standing here, and all these

others are bowing. Now what is the difference? This one

is the Pope”–he hated the Pope anyway–and he’d say, “the

difference is epaulettes”–of course not in the case of the

Pope, but if he was a general–it was always the uniform,

the position, “but this man has the same human problems,

he eats dinner like anybody else, he goes to the bathroom,

he has the same kind of problems as everybody, he’s a

human being. Why are they all bowing to him? Only

because of his name and his position, because of his

uniform, not because of something special he did, or his

honor, or something like that.” He, by the way, was in the

uniform business, so he knew what the difference was

between the man with the uniform off and the uniform on;

it’s the same man for him.

He was happy with me, I believe. Once, though, when I

came back from MIT–I’d been there a few years–he said

to me, “Now,” he said, “you’ve become educated about

these things and there’s one question I’ve always had that

I’ve never understood very well and I’d like to ask you,

now that you’ve studied this, to explain it to me,” and I

asked him what it was. And he said that he understood that

when an atom made a transition from one state to another it

emits a particle of light called a photon. I said, “That’s

right.” And he says, “Well, now, is the photon in the atom

ahead of time that it comes out, or is there no photon in it

to start with?” I says, “There’s no photon in, it’s just that

when the electron makes a transition it comes” and he says

“Well, where does it come from then, how does it come

out?” So I couldn’t just say, “The view is that photon

numbers aren’t conserved, they’re just created by the

motion of the electron.” I couldn’t try to explain to him

something like: the sound that I’m making now wasn’t in

me. It’s not like my little boy who when he started to talk,

suddenly said that he could no longer say a certain word–

the word was “cat”–because his word bag has run out of

the word cat (LAUGHS). SO there’s no word bag that you

have inside so that you use up the words as they come out,

you just make them as they go along, and in the same sense

there was no photon bag in an atom and when the photons

come out they didn’t come from somewhere, but I couldn’t

do much better. He was not satisfied with me in the

respect that I never was able to explain any of the things

that he didn’t understand (LAUGHS). So he was

unsuccessful, he sent me through all these universities in

order to find out these things and he never did find out

(LAUGHS).