It Is Not Enough to Know the Name of Something

Marin Mikulic | Writer | Outdoorsman | Reader |
A collision of galaxies. (Yale University)

They say that reality is stranger than fiction and nowhere is that more evident than in physics — just think about the innards of atoms, the mind-boggling distances in the universe, or entire galaxies colliding with each other. Few, if any, works of fiction can paint a picture stranger than what can be found on the macro and micro vistas of the natural world.

Physicists have often been a curiosity of mine for their unremitting and indomitable devotion to nature, choosing to understand it rather than settling for supernatural explanations which inevitably fall flat in comparison to even the dullest, grayest morning in the dullest, grayest corner of the world.

One such man was Richard Feynman, an American physicist known for his many contributions in quantum mechanics, the theory of quantum electrodynamics, the physics of superfluidity, and particle physics, all of which had earned him a lifetime of honor and awards, like the Nobel prize he won for discoveries in quantum electrodynamics. His contribution to our collective understanding of the natural world is so profound that I will not touch upon it much — it would take volumes and I have intended this essay to be only a few pages.

Richard Phillips Feynman was born in 1918 in New York City to non-practicing Lithuanian Jews, Lucille neé Phillips and Melville Arthur Feynman. Melville, a sales manager, had had a profound influence on his son, instilling in him a keen sense of curiosity and a deep irreverence for any and all figures of authority. This echoed, maybe unconsciously, Bertrand Russell’s admonition (to all of us) to have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found — for each expert, there can be found a counter-expert.

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Richard Feynman’s photo ID. (Public Domain)

This principle was embodied best in Melville’s scorn for uniforms — he took great care to imbue in young Richard the knowledge that, beneath the uniform, everyone’s the same. He wanted his son to know that the uniform means nothing, that it does not imply authority, and that it’s OK to call the king naked.

Richard and his father had on many occasions gone on long walks through woods and forests, where Melville demonstrated his peculiar mind. One particularly important lesson that arose from these walks was the importance of understanding the difference between knowing the name of something and actually knowing something.

“See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halzenfugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird, absolutely nothing about the bird. You only know something about people — what they call the bird.”

Melville Arthur Feynman

This anecdote had shaped much of Richard’s reverence for the absence of pretense. In other words, either you make the effort to understand what’s around you or you satisfy yourself with a pretense of knowledge through parrot-like repetition of the names someone else had come up with. It’s a little like demanding to be given fish to eat, but refusing to be taught fishing and so meet your own needs.

Out of this childhood of simple curiosity and lasting lessons, Richard set out to understand the world in all its form and hues. He was enamored with everything around him, believing that the world cannot fall under any one discipline and that it should be stubbornly, and lovingly, studied — an approach that’s strikingly at odds with the modern habit of professional over-specialization where we‘re defined by a single activity we do. Richard, aside from being a physicist, was an accomplished painter, drawer, and bongo player.

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This love of the natural world, coupled with a distrust of dogma and authority fostered by his father, would land Richard into many adventures and misadventures on his way to becoming a giant in the world of physics.

One such adventure took place during his time in Los Alamos at the height of the Second World War. A physicist of some renown by that time, Richard was recruited by the American government to work on what was to become the Manhattan project and give birth to the atomic bomb. There, in the center of the ongoing scientific war, Richard noticed that all the classified documents were filed inside shabby cabinets protected by weak locks.

He began complaining about this but no one paid him any notice — in the minds of his colleagues, the cabinets were protected by locks and that was the end of it. To prove that the locks didn’t matter in the least, Feynman learned how to pick these and, whenever he needed someone’s report, he’d sneak into their office, pick the lock, read the report and, when he was finished, would tell the guy:

“Thanks for your report.”
“Where’d you get it from?”
“Out of your filing cabinet.”
“But, I locked it!”
“I know you locked it. The locks are no good.”

Pointing out the obvious — that the cabinet is locked — amounts to knowing the name of the bird, but understanding and picking the lock apart to prove it’s worthless shows you know something about the bird itself. Richard had, over and over again, chosen to fish for his own fish rather than be satisfied with what might be thrown his way. How often do we do the same?

His desire to understand the world often brought him face to face with obscure concepts, difficult physics problems, and theories that were as complex to posit as they were to validate. This, in Richard’s case, meant dealing with elusive questions at the very edge of human understanding — a place where it doesn’t help to consult physics textbooks or history because nothing of the sort had ever been attempted before. A place where you are alone, trying to shine the torch of your own imperfect reason into the dark hall of everything you don’t understand. When faced with a maddening problem he was unable to crack, Feynman resorted to what underlined his entire physics career — the simple pleasure of finding things out. He wanted there to be questions beyond his capacity to answer, so that he could forever think about them.

“You gotta stop and think about it, to really get the pleasure, about the complexity — the inconceivable nature…of nature.”

Richard Feynman

His love of nature and understanding was most evident in how he could go on and on about the simplest phenomena, like why droplets of water falling through air assume a globular shape, taking the listener through an explanatory journey assembled by a brilliant mind whose only purpose was to show that even the simplest phenomena, the most boring events, and the most common objects all hide wondrous secrets available to those who are willing to go beyond the superficial names. That was his lifelong love — to accept the world as it is while using his considerable mental faculties to further the collective human understanding.

“I get a kick out of it. Just as a runner gets a kick out of… out of sweating, I get a kick out of thinking about things.”

Richard Feynman

A lifelong member of the academia, Feynman taught incredibly popular physics lectures by demonstrating his ability to deconstruct complexity through the use of analogy, metaphor, humor, and stories — even earning himself the title “the Great Explainer”. Bill Gates, an admirer of Feynman, thought these recorded lectures so important that he bought out the rights to the entire collection and made it available for free.

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Richard Feynman was a keen thinker who took the time to understand the world beyond what’s immediately perceivable. He was aware that we humans often fool ourselves into thinking we know more than we do because we might be wielding an arsenal of many names. But, as he so vividly demonstrated, knowing the name amounts to nothing if we don’t know what lies behind the name. And to know what lies behind it, we must be willing to explore the edge of our understanding, rigorously and with a love of truth, while at the same time keeping in mind the fact that not knowing does not have to be scary — indeed, it’s what makes the whole thing fun.

“Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough.”

Richard Feynman
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