Surely you\'re joking, Mr. Feynman

from ``surely you're joking, mr. feynman'', by richard feynman, copyright 1985, pg. 157-158. dr. feynman was a nobel prize-winning physicist who, among other things, worked on the first atomic bomb at los alamos, nm. he died in 1988.

then i had another thought: physics disgusts me a little bit now, but i used to enjoy doing physics. why did i enjoy it? i used to play with it. i used to do whatever i felt like doing - it didn't have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. when i was in high school, i'd see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if i could figure out what determines that curve. i found it was rather easy to do. i didn't have to do it; it wasn't important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. that didn't make any difference. i'd invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

so i got this new attitude. now that i am burned out and i'll never accomplish anything, i've got this nice position at the university teaching classes which i rather enjoy, and just like i read the arabian nights for pleasure, i'm going to play with physics, whenever i want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

within a week i was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. as the plate went up in the air i saw it wobble, and i noticed the red medallion of cornell on the plate going around. it was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

i had nothing to do, so i start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. i discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate - two to one [note: feynman mis-remembers here---the factor of 2 is the other way]. it came out of a complicated equation! then i thought, ``is there some way i can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it's two to one?''

i don't remember how i did it, but i ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one.

i still remember going to hans bethe and saying, ``hey, hans! i noticed something interesting. here the plate goes around so, and the reason it's two to one is ...'' and i showed him the accelerations.

he says, ``feynman, that's pretty interesting, but what's the importance of it? why are you doing it?''

``hah!'' i say. ``there's no importance whatsoever. i'm just doing it for the fun of it.'' his reaction didn't discourage me; i had made up my mind i was going to enjoy physics and do whatever i liked.

i went on to work out equations of wobbles. then i thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. then there's the dirac equation in electrodynamics. and then quantum electrodynamics. and before i knew it (it was a very short time) i was ``playing'' - working, really - with the same old problem that i loved so much, that i had stopped working on when i went to los alamos: my thesis-type problems; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

it was effortless. it was easy to play with these things. it was like uncorking a bottle: everything flowed out effortlessly. i almost tried to resist it! there was no importance to what i was doing, but ultimately there was. the diagrams and the whole business that i got the nobel prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.


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