Doug Bruns

Posts Tagged ‘Richard Feynman’

Habits of learning.

In Books, Curiosity, Life, Reading, Science, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on January 11, 2013 at 6:00 am

There are many subjects discussed here at “…the house…” It’s an eclectic place. Commenting on this, a friend recently asked about my habits of learning. I thought I’d take a moment and talk about that. I wrote about the habits of reader-writers yesterday. This makes for a natural, albeit tangential, elaboration.

As I’ve said previously, I’m an autodidact. That is, I learn best on my own and without specific direction from others. (Ray Bradbury is a best-case example of an autodidact. A recent post on Bradbury, among other things, can be found here.) College showed me what to be interested in, pointed me in a direction. I took over from there. Through the years I have wished for a mentor, a guide, someone to help me in my intellectual pursuits; but that never happened and is not likely to happen now. Consequently, an evolution of learning resulted, a fashion of making my own way. It is simple and boils down to this: biography and original sources.

Let’s start with biography, and since we recently talked a bit about quantum physics, perhaps we will begin there.

Many years ago I came to better appreciate how modern physics was redefining our understanding of the physical world, but I had little understanding of the work being done. Where to begin? Abstraction is booksdifficult for me. I need the hook of personality to guide my quest. Ergo, biography. Want to learn something? Begin with the lives of those who discovered/practiced/exercised the discipline. I began learning about physics by reading Denis Brian’s biography, Einstein: A Life. More properly, I began learning about the life of Einstein.

The book set the stage, but it was only the beginning. I came to learn from my reading that the good professor was at the sunset of work being done in traditional Newtonian physics. With that (new)98685 knowledge, I moved to modern physics with the brilliant award-winning biography, Genius, The Life and Times of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I was starting to settle in, getting traction, and knew that one life still had to be explored: Robert Oppenheimer. I turned to the definitive book, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

71JUG2TW19LI will resist the urge to riff on these books. They get me excited. I cannot over recommend them. (Though Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is the one to read now.)

With this work done, I was equipped to move to the next phase: original sources. However, I could not read original sources. I am mathematically illiterate. So, where to turn? I read books for the lay person. (Fortunately, too, I have a physicist in the family. Advice: find an expert.) But still, I gave a selection of the original sources a go and found the good Doctor Einstein’s book, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, to be surprisingly accessible (if you ignore the math). File:The_pleasure_of_finding_things_outMany of Feynman’s books are written for the layperson. (Start with The Pleasure of Finding Things Out–not physics, per se, but wonderful thoughts on leaning and curiosity.) The point being, without the biographies I would not have asked the right questions, read the right supplemental books, discovered the correct sources. By the end of the process–I probably invested two year’s reading–I was confident that I knew what I needed and wanted to know.


I share this to perhaps help you on your quest, whatever that might be. I’ve read a lot of books and hope to read many more. If you’re a life-long learner perhaps you’ve got your own technique. I share mine to show how one person does it. Maybe you have a technique you think I would appreciate. Please share. We’re all pilgrims on this journey.



Our schools teach from secondary and tertiary sources. This is a pity. Original thinkers shared. They wrote books to be read. My personal admonition: Do the homework, go to the source–and, for me, prepare for the source material; that is, read the biographies.

Thanks for reading,


Babylonian or Greek–Which?

In Creativity, Curiosity, Philosophy, Technology, The infinity of ideas on June 7, 2010 at 2:56 pm

Richard Feynman

I’m re-reading Feynman’s Rainbow, a Search for Beauty in Physics and Life, by Leonard Mlodinow.  A freshly minted PhD in physics, Mlodinow came to Caltech on a postdoctoral fellowship in the 1980s. There he met Nobel Laureate, Richard Feynman. The book is his look back at the conversations and ideas shared with Feynman. Feynman shaped the landscape of modern physics, but his mind reached far beyond his discipline. His insights into all aspects of human experience make for wonderful reading. He died of cancer–a disease he was battling when Mlodinow was at Caltech–in 1988. (I would suggest James Gleick’s biography of Feynman, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman if you want to dig deeper.)  Mlodinow’s rendering of  this vastly creative and productive personality is fascinating. In particular, I found this overview, quoted below, insightful.

Feynman used to say there were two kinds of physicists, the Babylonians and the Greeks. He was referring to the opposing philosophies of those ancient civilizations.The Babylonians made western civilization’s first great strides in understanding numbers and equations, and in geometry. Yet it was the later Greeks…whom we credit with inventing mathematics. This is because Babylonians cared only whether or not a method of calculation worked…not whether it was exact, or fit into any greater logical system….To put it simply, the Babylonians focused on the phenomena, the Greeks on the underlying order.

Feynman was, writes Mlodinow, a Babylonian. Greek thinkers, he says, bring the “full force of logical machinery” to the discipline. Babylonian’s, on the other hand, employ more instinct and intuition. All this can likely be reduced to the trite right brain left brain summary. But we know the brain fires neural impulses across both hemispheres. Nothing is truly simple in reduction. Or, to put it in (very) broad philosophical terms, the Babylonians were empiricists, the Greeks rationalists. (I offer this carefully, understanding that Feynman had no patience for philosophy.)

I am drawn to metaphor, so my curiosity was piqued at the notion that this concept might be applied to a larger context, to a society or time, Babylonian verses Greek culture. Logic verses intuition. I wonder, to continue running with the generalities, where we, us moderns, might find our place on this scale? Technology is a logical structure. Yet, most technology, consumer technology certainly, is designed to exploit the intuitive desires of the user. My hunch is that rationalism prevails, that the Greeks rule at the end of the day. As they say, numbers talk. That is not bad, nor good. Just an observation. Where the scientist explains the universe, the poet shows us the stars.