The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman
Feynman (Richard), Dyson (Freeman), Robbins (Jeffrey), Ed.
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Inside Cover Blurb

  1. 'Everything is interesting if you go into it deeply enough' says Richard Feynman in 'The Smartest Man in the World', one of the many priceless pieces in this collection of Feynman's best short works.
  2. Here we see Feynman as he was - a brilliant physicist who consistently rejected authority, wholeheartedly embraced the value of doubt, and whose infectious sense of curiosity infused everything he did. This wide-ranging collection includes: uproarious tales of Feynman's early student experiments (with himself, his socks, his typewriter, his fellow students); his youthful experiences on the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during World war II; his famous report on the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster; two seminal lectures on the future of computers and nanotechnology; stories of safecracking and plaguing US censors with talcum powder; the tales of the physicist as a child - how his father delighted in showing him the world, and how he, the young boy, took great pleasure in 'finding things out'.
  3. Enlightening, absorbing, and always entertaining, THE PLEASURE OF FINDING THINGS OUT is Feynman at his best.
  4. Richard P Feynman was one of this century's most brilliant theoretical physicists and original thinkers. Born in 1918 in Brooklyn, he received his PhD from Princeton in 1942. Despite his youth, he played an important part in the Manhattan Project at Los Alamos during world War II. Subsequently he taught at Cornell and at the California Institute of Technology. In 1965 he received the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum electrodynamics.
  5. Perpetually curious about his world, Richard Feynman was at various times a repairer of radios, a picker of locks, an artist, a dancer, a percussionist, a decipherer of Mayan hieroglyphics. He died in 1988 in Los Angeles.

    Freeman Dyson - Foreword - ix
    Jeffrey Robbins - Editor’s Introduction - xv
  1. "Feynman (Richard) - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out" - 1
  2. "Feynman (Richard) - Computing Machines in the Future" - 27
  3. "Feynman (Richard) - Los Alamos from Below" - 53
  4. "Feynman (Richard) - Computing Machines in the Future" - 97
  5. "Feynman (Richard) - There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom" - 117
  6. "Feynman (Richard) - The Value of Science" - 141
  7. "Feynman (Richard) - Richard Feynman's Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry" – 151
  8. "Feynman (Richard) - What Is Science?" - 171
  9. "Feynman (Richard) - The Smartest Man in the World" - 189
  10. "Feynman (Richard) - Cargo Cult Science: Some Remarks on Science, Pseudoscience, and Learning How to Not Fool Yourself" - 205
  11. "Feynman (Richard) - It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three" - 217
  12. "Feynman (Richard) - Richard Feynman Builds a Universe" - 225
  13. "Feynman (Richard) - The Relation of Science and Religion" - 245


Allen Lane, Penguin Books, London, 1999. Foreward by Freeman Dyson.

"Dyson (Freeman) & Robbins (Jeffrey), Ed. - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: Prefaces, Etc."

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works


"Feynman (Richard) - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. The result is a candid, relaxed, and very personal discussion on many topics close to Feynman’s heart:
    • Why knowing merely the name of something is the same as not knowing anything at all about it;
    • How he and his fellow atomic scientists of the Manhattan Project could drink and revel in the success of the terrible weapon they had created while on the other side of the world in Hiroshima thousands of their fellow human beings were dead or dying from it
    • Why Feynman could just as well have gotten along without a Nobel Prize.

"Feynman (Richard) - Computing Machines in the Future"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. Forty years to the day after the atomic bombing of Nagasaki, Manhattan Project veteran Feynman delivers a talk in Japan, but the topic is a peaceful one, one that still occupies our sharpest minds: the future of the computing machine, including the topic that made Feynman seem a Nostradamus of computer science - the ultimate lower limit to the size of a computer.
  2. This chapter may be challenging for some readers; however, it is such an important part of Feynman’s contribution to science that I hope they will take the time to read it, even if they have to skip over some of the more technical spots.
  3. It ends with a brief discussion of one of Feynman’s favorite pet ideas, which launched the current revolution in nanotechnology.

"Feynman (Richard) - Los Alamos from Below"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. And now a little something on the lighter side — gems about wise-cracker (not to mention safecracker) Feynman getting in and out of trouble at Los Alamos:
    → getting his own private room by seeming to break the no-women-in-the-men’s-dormitory rule;
    → outwitting the camp’s censors;
    → rubbing shoulders with great men like Robert Oppenheimer, Niels Bohr, and Hans Bethe; and
    → the awesome distinction of being the only man to stare straight at the first atomic blast without protective goggles, an experience that changed Feynman forever.

"Feynman (Richard) - What Is and What Should Be the Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. Here is a talk Feynman gave to an audience of scientists at the Galileo Symposium in Italy, in 1964.
  2. With frequent acknowledgments and references to the great work and intense anguish of Galileo, Feynman speaks on the effect of science on religion, on society, and on philosophy, and warns that it is our capacity to doubt that will determine the future of civilization.

"Feynman (Richard) - There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. In this famous talk to the American Physical Society on December 29, 1959, at Caltech, Feynman, the “father of nanotechnology,” expounds, decades ahead of his time, on the future of miniaturization: how to put the entire Encyclopaedia Brittanica on the head of a pin, the drastic reduction in size of both biological and inanimate objects, and the problems of lubricating machines smaller than the period at the end of this sentence.
  2. Feynman makes his famous wager, challenging young scientists to construct a working motor no more than 1/64 of an inch on all sides.


"Feynman (Richard) - The Value of Science"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. Of all its many values, the greatest must he the freedom to doubt.
  2. In Hawaii, Feynman learns a lesson in humility while touring a Buddhist temple: "To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.” This is one of Feynman's most eloquent pieces, reflecting on science's relevance to the human experience and vice versa. He also gives a lesson to fellow scientists on their responsibility to the future of civilization.

  1. … the scientific article says, perhaps, something like this: “The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two weeks.” Now, what does that mean?
  2. It means that phosphorus that is in the brain of a rat (and also in mine, and yours) is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago1, but that all of the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced, and the ones that were there before have gone away.
  3. So what is this mind, what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week’s potatoes! That is what now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago – a mind which has long ago been replaced.
  4. That is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms, to note that the thing which I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, then go out; always new atoms but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.

  • The key claim in the above extract is that “the thing which I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance”. This reminded me of the claim in "Clark (Andy) & Kuhn (Robert Lawrence) - Aeon: Video - Andy Clark - Virtual immortality" that “we are patterns in information space”.
  • Are Feynman and Clark talking the same language here? Are either of them correct? I’ve discussed Clark under the head of the above paper. What about Feynman?
  • Feynman’s main point is equivalent to the well-known (but maybe disputed – for example, see this footnote from Snopes3) claim that all the cells in our body are replaced every 7 years – or something like that. While Snopes point out that this claim is technically false, it is true for the bulk of our cells, but not – it seems – from a careful reading of "Frisen (Jonas), Etc. - Retrospective Birth Dating of Cells in Humans" – for our neurons. So, is he right to say the we remember with “a mind which has long ago been replaced”?
  • Well, firstly he is equating mind with brain – which is debatably, but a claim I’m willing to go along with. But if this is true, it puts in tension his other claim that we are “patterns”.
  • What is true is that it’s the material structure and organisation of the brain (and the rest of the body) that is important, not the individual atoms – or even the individual cells – that make it up.
  • However, every time we have a thought, new connections are made or strengthened in the brain, and its structure changes slightly, so – if we are to hang on to the idea that we are a persisting thing at all – neither the particular atoms nor the particular structure of our brains and bodies are essential to our persistence, provided they evolve in a “natural” way. This is the case for the persistence of all organisms, which eat and excrete, grow and do all the other things organisms do.
  • Feynman admitted to being no philosopher (and thought philosophy a waste of time in any case) and admitted that scientists are just amateurs outside their domain of expertise. Also, he doesn’t express himself unambiguously on non-scientific matters. I doubt he means what he might be understood to say.
  • He’s right that it’s the “dance” of the molecules, rather than the molecules themselves, that matters, but you can’t take that evolving structure away from matter altogether and say that it’s that that we are. We are not evolving abstract objects but evolving material beings.

In-Page Footnotes ("Feynman (Richard) - The Value of Science")

Footnote 1:
  • Two things here
    1. This is not radioactive decay (any more than it is in the 14C studies undertaken in "Frisen (Jonas), Etc. - Retrospective Birth Dating of Cells in Humans"), but radioactive phosphorus is used as a marker.
    2. However, what is signified by the fact that the phosphorus is being swapped out with a half-life of 2 weeks?
  • Given the findings in the study just cited, it doesn’t look like whole neurons are being swapped out, but some of the chemicals in them are. But – again based on the paper just cited – the 14C in the DNA in the neurons is not being swapped out, but stays there for life – so I don’t know why phosphorus is different.
  • But this means that it might be (or might have been) the case that the material structure of a neuron remains the same, but not the physical atoms that make it up.
  • If the structure varied capriciously, we’d not be able to remember anything, or perform actions that depend on learned or innate abilities.
Footnote 2:
  • There are more interesting passages than the one selected, of course, but I was particularly struck by this one, for the reasons given above.
Footnote 3:
  1. Snopes: Does The Human Body Replace Itself Every Seven Years?
    Claim: Every cell in the human body is replaced every seven years.
    Rating: False. While the vast majority of cells would be replaced every seven to ten years, some cellular outliers make such a statement pointedly false.
    • The cells within a human body are myriad, multi-functioned, and completely distinct from one another. Different kinds of human cells replace themselves at different rates, which means the human body is comprised of cells of many different ages.
    • The vast majority of a these cells regenerate fairly rapidly, making most cells in a human body much younger than the age of the human itself. The researcher behind a ground-breaking study that attempted to date the ages of various cells in a human body, Jonas Frisen, famously estimated that the average age of a cell in the human body is between 7 and 10 years old in a pivotal 2005 paper published in Cell ("Frisen (Jonas), Etc. - Retrospective Birth Dating of Cells in Humans").
    • These statements have led some to the conclusion that every cell in the human body is replaced every 7 to 10 years — a fun but inaccurate factoid commonly held as true. The central flaw in the argument is that an average of all the cells in a body masks the fact that some cells last very long times, and other cells don’t regenerate for a person’s entire lifetime, as described by NPR: It turns out that each body part has its own very distinct lifespan. The lining of the stomach, constantly under assault by digestive acid, is renewed every few days. But bones are refreshed once a decade. And there are a few parts of you that stay with you from birth to death.
    • Using a method that allowed for radiocarbon analysis of individual types of cells, Frisen and his colleagues quantified the age of intestinal cells, skeletal muscle cells, and the gray matter of two brain regions — the cerebral cortex and the cerebellum. Compiling data from multiple individuals, they found:
      • The average age of all cells in the intestine was 10.7 years, with epithelial cells (which form the outside of organs and blood vessels) being replaced on average every 5 days compared to non-epithelial cells being replaced an average of every 15.9 years.
      • The average age of skeletal muscles was 15.1 years.
      • The average age of cells in the gray matter (cells that make up neurons and other brain matter) of the cerebellum was almost as old as the individual, implying they form when a person is around two years old and remain with them throughout that person’s life.
      • Cells from the grey matter of the occipital-cortex gray matter, however, turnover at a much higher rate.
    • As NPR also noted, some other cells will also remain with you literally from embryo to death. The cells that make up the central core of the lens of an eye remain with a human from their genesis during embryonic development to their demise at death.
    • Because of these outliers, there will never be a period of time over which one can accurately say that all of the cells in your body have been replaced by new ones (even if a vast majority of them will have been replaced in that time period). Therefore, we rank the claim that a human’s body is replaced on the cellular level every seven years as false.
      → Alex Kasprak, Published 30 April 2018
  2. Notes:
    • I think the Snopes article has failed to pick up an important point about neurogenesis from "Frisen (Jonas), Etc. - Retrospective Birth Dating of Cells in Humans".
    • While they are right to say that the apparent age of the cells making up the grey matter outside the cerebellum is much less than the age of the person, that is because this is based on the average age of the neurons and the glial cells (see Wikipedia: Glia). It seems that the neurons themselves are unchanged from age two, or thereabouts, as with the cells in the cerebellum.

"Feynman (Richard) - Richard Feynman's Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. When the Space Shuttle Challenger1 exploded shortly after its launch on January 28, 1986, six professional astronauts and one school-teacher were tragically killed. The nation was devastated, and NASA was shaken out of its complacency, brought on by years of successful – or at least nonlethal – space missions.
  2. A commission was formed, led by Secretary of State William P. Rogers and composed of politicians, astronauts, military men, and one scientist, to investigate the cause of the accident and to recommend steps to prevent such a disaster from ever happening again.
  3. The fact that Richard Feynman was that one scientist may have made the difference between answering the question of why the Challenger failed and eternal mystery. Feynman was gutsier than most men, not afraid to jet all over the country to talk to the men on the ground, the engineers who had recognized the fact that propaganda was taking the lead over care and safety in the shuttle program.
  4. His report, which was perceived by the Commission as embarrassing to NASA, was almost suppressed by the Commission, but Feynman fought to have it included; it was relegated to an appendix.
  5. When the Commission held a live press conference to answer questions, Feynman did his now-famous tabletop experiment with one of the shuttle’s gaskets, or O-rings, and a cup of ice water. It dramatically proved that those key gaskets had failed because the warning of the engineers that it was too cold outside to go ahead with the launch went unheeded by managers eager to impress their bosses with the punctuality of their mission schedule.
  6. Here is that historic report.

  • I found this report rather opaque - probably because it assumes a lot of background knowledge. The final Conclusion is, however, admirably clear on the need "For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled", rather than to stick to deadlines.
  • The report doesn't just discuss the O-rings, or even clearly say that they were "the problem", but discusses the whole range of parts and attitudes to testing and safety.
  • He makes a good analogy - having survived a (non-)bullet in Russian roulette shouldn't make you more confident of surviving the next "click".
  • It was interesting to hear that the software was the best tested, and had the greatest degree of redundancy (four parallel computers cross-checking one another, with a fifth "emergency landing controller"). But, because so much effort and expense had gone into testing it, the hardware and software were by then 15 years out of date (in 1986) - the programs were loaded from tape!

In-Page Footnotes ("Feynman (Richard) - Richard Feynman's Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry")

Footnote 1:

"Feynman (Richard) - What Is Science?"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. What is science? It is common sense! Or is it?
  2. In April 1966 the master teacher delivered an address to the National Science Teachers’ Association in which he gave his fellow teachers lessons on how to teach their students to think like a scientist and how to view the world with curiosity, open-mindedness, and, above all, doubt.
  3. This talk is also a tribute to the enormous influence Feynman's father - a uniforms salesman - had on Feynman’s way of looking at the world.

  • Feynman stresses both that it's important for one generation to pass its knowledge on to the next, so that it is not lost, but also that only "real" knowledge, rather than mistakes and pseudo-science being passed on.
  • I think he over-reacts (in a rather Popperian way) to the latter phenomenon - of bogus "knowledge" being passed on. He wants a healthy distrust of experts, and an understanding that nothing is certain. That's OK for people like Feynman himself, but a general distrust of experts - simply because they say things we don't like - is corrosive of the public good.
  • Of course, experts should be honest about the limits of their expertise, and say when they are not sure or where they simply don't know.
  • Also, people should indeed try to check things out for themselves, but this is easier in some fields than in others. And we can't have everyone believing what they like.
  • But he's right that science education shouldn't just be dispensing knowledge, but should enable students to find things out.

"Feynman (Richard) - The Smartest Man in the World"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. Here is that wonderful 1979 interview of Feynman by Omni magazine.
  2. This is Feynman on what he knows and loves best — physics — and what he loves least, philosophy. ("Philosophers should learn to laugh at themselves. ")
  3. Here Feynman discusses the work that earned him the Nobel Prize, quantum electrodynamics (QED); he then goes on to cosmology, quarks, and those pesky infinities that gum up so many equations.

"Feynman (Richard) - Cargo Cult Science: Some Remarks on Science, Pseudoscience, and Learning How to Not Fool Yourself"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. The 1974 Caltech Commencement Address
  2. Question: What do witch doctors, ESP, South Sea Islanders, rhinoceros horns, and Wesson Oil have to do with college graduation?
  3. Answer: They’re all examples the crafty Feynman uses to convince departing graduates that honesty in science is more rewarding than all the kudos and temporary successes in the world.
  4. In this address to Caltech’s class of 1974, Feynman gives a lesson in scientific integrity in the face of peer pressure and glowering funding agencies.

"Feynman (Richard) - It’s as Simple as One, Two, Three"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. 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.

"Feynman (Richard) - Richard Feynman Builds a Universe"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. In a previously unpublished interview made under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, Feynman reminisces about his life in science: his terrifying first lecture to a Nobel laureate-packed room; the invitation to work on the first atomic bomb and his reaction; cargo-cult science; and that fateful pre-dawn wake-up call from a journalist informing him that he'd just won the Nobel prize. Feynman’s answer: "You could have told me that in the morning."

"Feynman (Richard) - The Relation of Science and Religion"

Source: Feynman - The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - The Best Short Works

Editor’s Introduction
  1. In a kind of thought experiment, Feynman takes the various points of view of an imaginary panel to represent the thinking of scientists and spiritualists and discusses the points of agreement and of disagreement between science and religion, anticipating by two decades, the current active debate between these two fundamentally different ways of searching for truth.
  2. Among other questions, he wonders whether atheists can have morals based on what science tells them, in the way that spiritualists can have morals based on their belief in God — an unusually philosophical topic for pragmatic Feynman.

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