- An uproarious tale of Feynman the precocious student experimenting – with himself, his socks, his typewriter, and his fellow students – to solve the mysteries of counting and of time.
- This is a short paper that’s interesting for several reasons:-
- The insight into Feynman’s “enquiring mind” – not just pondering over things (like an armchair philosopher) but performing experiments (not like an experimental philosopher, which just involves asking over people for their intuitions, though he does ask his house-mates about their experiences and ways of thinking).
- I’m interested in “counting” from a musical viewpoint, as it’s so essential to keep in time, especially if you have to count 20 bars rest, as the oboist sometimes has to.
- I’m also interested in “multi-tasking” for many reasons, not least – recently – because it is discussed in "Costa (Albert) - The Bilingual Brain: And What It Tells Us about the Science of Language" in the context of how multi-lingualism affects the ability to multi-task (because a multi-lingual person who regularly speaks two or more languages has to “switch off” the ones that aren’t in use, to save confusion, and this has a cognitive overhead, but is good practice for other “shared attention” tasks).
- Feynman had noted – by checking – that his counting up to 60 – when not looking at a clock – while not taking a minute always took around 48 seconds, give or take a second. And that where this was not the case – as when counting when typing – this was not down to the rate of counting changing, but because the counting stopped while he was distracted by an awkward word. I’ve noticed something similar on the oboe. If I play a piece through (without a metronome, but while recording myself) I’ve found that I can play a 3-minute plus piece twice in the same time, give or take a second, if I force myself to carry on through the stumbles, as I have to do when practicing with piano accompaniment in mind, but obviously it takes a different amount of time if I stop and start.
- He’d originally got interested in this topic on hearing of a psychology paper that was trying to account for the researcher’s wife’s variation in her internal clock – as revealed by her counting rate – which seemed to speed up when she had a fever. The researcher – by comparing the rate of increase with variations in chemical reaction rates with temperature – had deduced that it was something to do with iron, as these rates fitted the bill best. Feynman wasn’t impressed, as there were too many unknowns. I thought it was at least a semi-sensible stab and a trigger for further research. A quick Google revealed that there’s an article “Temperature and Psychological Time” on p. 594 of the Encyclopedia of Time, edited by Samuel L. Macey1. The article mentions experiments by Hudson Hoagland that sound like the ones Feynman mentions, but there’s no mention of iron.
- He’d noted that he couldn’t count and talk at the same time. A house-mate couldn’t read and count at the same time. This – he deduced – was down to the use of shared internal processes, but ones that differed between the two of them. Feynman – like most of us – used an internal voice while counting. However, his house-mate used a visual aid – he’d imagine a tape of numbers cycling round. They could both perform “cross-discipline” counting with no difficulty, but couldn’t train themselves to do what the other found easy (so his house-mate couldn’t train himself to read and count, and Feynman couldn’t train himself to speak and count; nor could anyone they asked).
- More could be said, but that’s enough!
- As it’s £195 new and £80 used, and hails from 1994, I won’t be buying a copy!
Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)
- Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2020
- Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)