Monday, September 17, 2012

What Problems to Solve!

A former student, who was also once a student of Tomonaga’s, wrote to extend his congratulations. Feynman responded, asking Mr. Mano what he was now doing. The response: “studying the Coherence theory with some applications to the propagation of electromagnetic waves through turbulent atmosphere… a humble and down-to-earth type of problem.”
Dear Koichi,

I was very happy to hear from you, and that you have such a position in the
Research Laboratories. Unfortunately your letter made me unhappy for you seem
to be truly sad. It seems that the influence of your teacher has been to give
you a false idea of what are worthwhile problems. The worthwhile problems are
the ones you can really solve or help solve, the ones you can really contribute
something to. A problem is grand in science if it lies before us unsolved and
we see some way for us to make some headway into it. I would advise you to take
even simpler, or as you say, humbler, problems until you find some you can
really solve easily, no matter how trivial. You will get the pleasure of
success, and of helping your fellow man, even if it is only to answer a
question in the mind of a colleague less able than you. You must not take away
from yourself these pleasures because you have some erroneous idea of what is

You met me at the peak of my career when I seemed to you to be concerned with
problems close to the gods. But at the same time I had another Ph.D. Student
(Albert Hibbs) was on how it is that the winds build up waves blowing over
water in the sea. I accepted him as a student because he came to me with the
problem he wanted to solve. With you I made a mistake, I gave you the problem
instead of letting you find your own; and left you with a wrong idea of what is
interesting or pleasant or important to work on (namely those problems you see
you may do something about). I am sorry, excuse me. I hope by this letter to
correct it a little.

I have worked on innumerable problems that you would call humble, but which I
enjoyed and felt very good about because I sometimes could partially succeed.
For example, experiments on the coefficient of friction on highly polished
surfaces, to try to learn something about how friction worked (failure). Or,
how elastic properties of crystals depends on the forces between the atoms in
them, or how to make electroplated metal stick to plastic objects (like radio
knobs). Or, how neutrons diffuse out of Uranium. Or, the reflection of
electromagnetic waves from films coating glass. The development of shock waves
in explosions. The design of a neutron counter. Why some elements capture
electrons from the L-orbits, but not the K-orbits. General theory of how to
fold paper to make a certain type of child’s toy (called flexagons). The energy
levels in the light nuclei. The theory of turbulence (I have spent several
years on it without success). Plus all the “grander” problems of quantum

No problem is too small or too trivial if we can really do something about it.

You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You
will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their
simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me.
Do not remain nameless to yourself – it is too sad a way to be. now your place
in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of
your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher’s
ideals are.

Best of luck and happiness.  Sincerely, Richard P. Feynman.

Sunday, September 16, 2012

Nostalgia: Erik's Post

* Tobias C. Rittweiler (2008-09-19 00:37)
> for a long time I've wanted to send an e-mail to express the
> gratitude I feel for the countless usenet postings that you have
> written in your comp.lang.lisp history. Now I finally came around
> doing so:

It’s been quite a while since I posted my last article to c.l.l, but very warm and welcome messages like yours still keep coming in at a rate of about one a week. It amazes me.

> Thank you for the time and energy you spent in writing so many
> sophisticated and thought-provocating articles. I never understood
> where you drew this massive amount of energy and the will to
> continue from, considering the feedback you received back at that
> time.

Even when I was posting at a high rate, I received more mail from those who appreciated what I had posted. I needed that encouragement and knowing that despite the increasing amount of insanity on the newsgroup, lots of people were reading what I wrote with a positive attitude. However, there are some people whose evil ways are truly destructive, and those are the moralists and the punishers who are utterly unable to produce anything good at all, but all the more hell-bent on making others pay for such things as not living up to their expectations, doing what they think is right, etc, and I drew a considerable amount of energy from my life-long desire to rid the planet of moralists and punishers. It may sound contradictory, but I hold that the use of force and violence and the lesser evils of
moralizing and punishment should only be used to prevent any of them, never to seek any other goal: Telling a moralist that moralizing is wrong, punishing those who punish others, using force and violence to stop those who initiate the use of force and violence — you get the picture — is the right thing to do. Unfortunately, this gets the moralizers and punishers all worked up, and they prove that they really are the psychopaths they only appeared to be when someone had the gall to do something against /their/ desires. So even though my general outlook on life went under-appreciated, namely that if you know what other people should have done in the past, you never have any clue what you or anyone else ought to do in the future, and if you are concerned with what you yourself ought to do in the future, you generally leave other people alone to figure out what /they/ ought to do
in the future, too, lots of people picked up on the positive message: Exposing moralists and punishers for what they really are — psychopaths — does a great service to any community who suffers from
their pernicious effects. Of course, if you are a horribly bad person like that, you can only see others as reflections of yourself, and you never understand why anyone would want to moralize against or punish /you/, because part and parcel of being rabidly insane is never being able to see yourself from the outside, and you think insane thoughts like “How /dare/ anyone moralize against or punish /me/, when I‘m the sole moral authority in the whole Universe and everyone, everywhere have a
moral duty to behave the way /I/ tell them!”. Or, in other words, people who partition the world population into “the good” and “the bad” always make the mistake of believing that they fall into the “the good” partition, when they are actually among the very few that are truly evil: No monumental evil act in the history of mankind has been committed by anyone who thought of themselves as “evil” — on the contrary, the worse the (objective) evil, the more the perpetrator was
completely convinced of the goodness of himself and of his “purification”. So when the newsgroup became plagued by the evil kindof moron that has nothing to contributed and no rewards for anyone
doing the right thing, but only harm and punishment for those who do the wrong thing in their eyes, it was time to quit. Had I had even more energy, I could have stayed, but I had ran out of steam fighting false accusations, which is another one of those hallmarks of truly evil people who think nothing of harming the innocent in their crusade against the “evildoers”. It turns out, as any study of history will show, that those accused by moralists and punishers are always innocent. That’s why we need courts, so those who accuse are not the ones to decide on the guilt and the punishment. Stupid people tend not to grasp this fact, and only see courts as means of letting people they “know” are guilty avoid punishment.

> And I particularly mean your non-technical contributions. I read all
> those now already several years ago when I was sixteen if I'm
> remembering correctly. I recall how I was shocked at the tone you
> used, and the aggression you seemed to feel towards people, as I
> grew up in feel-good communities myself. [The postings] made me value
> technical expertise and competence over civil masquerade, and they
> revealed how the latter can sometimes even impair the communication
> for the former.

Civility and politeness are extremely useful tools in communication with people who are more wrong than right, but of very little use with people who are vastly more right than wrong. This counter-intuitive observation comes directly from the fact that we simply do not need civil and polite ways of telling people that they are right about something. So the people who have most to gain from civility and politeness are people who know they are and intend to /stay/ wrong while they force everybody else hold their tongues. That may have been a very good way of building societies before /anyone/ was usually right about anything. It is only in the twentieth century that a sizable fraction of the population had any means to know whether they were in the right or in the wrong to begin with. Before we invented the concept of the real world, everybody lived their entire lives in their own emotional world. After science and technology invented the concept of the real world and of truth as correspondence between thoughts and reality, the internal, private world turned out to be /untrue/ almost
all the time. These days, I keep telling people that you only /really/ grow up and become a human being (as opposed to a mere animal) when you realize that most of what you think and almost all you feel is /wrong/ and every person, however smart or highly esteemed by their peers, is utterly and completely incapable of determining where they are right among all this wrongness on their own. We tend to believe we are mostly right, however, and only notice when the consequences of our actions contradict our best expectations. Now, there are many areas of life where there /is/ no way to sort right from wrong, and it would certainly be impolite to point out an error that was only relative to our own personal values, which is where the impoliteness of moralizing comes in, but modern man enjoys a growing number of areas where we can unequivocally sort right from wrong, and then it is impolite /not/ to point out an error, for that means we let someone believe something that will cause them harm, or at least undesired consequences, later on. This means that in the areas of life where
people are mostly wrong, it is indeed a good thing to be civil andpolite all the time, as one wouldn’t want others constantly to point  out one’s own mistakes, either, but in the many areas where it is
possible to be right, and positively harmful to be wrong, allowing people to hold on to false beliefs in order to protect their feelings
is really, really bad for everyone. The key, therefore, is knowing
which areas can and which still cannot tell right from wrong. It is my
firm position that no areas of science, technology, engineering,
mathematics, and allied disciplines such as medicine, are proper
arenas for politeness and civility. If people are wrong and are
spreading dis- or misinformation in these fields, everybody hurts
because it becomes that much harder to know right from wrog. However,
in areas where no one can really tell, such as ethics, politics, fashion, etc, even though we may have pretty good ideas and
communities who /choose/ a particular set of beliefs, it behooves people to be humble and civil and polite because fighting with people who are
wrong, but believe they are right, yet there are no means to prove that, would be extremely tiresome, as it became on c.l.l when people
who stopped thinking about issues where we /can/ decide right from wrong, started to bother everyone with their /personal/ problems when others disagreed with them.

> In retrospect, I'm pretty sure that you helped me become the
> individuum I am now.

I’m very pleased to hear that, and particularly that you took the time
to write and tell me. I wish you the best of luck for the future!

Best regards, Erik Naggum
The United States of America still symbolizes individualism, rationality,
and intellectual achievement to me — even though most Americans disagree.