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Dr. Feynman’s 6 Principles of Trendspotting

2009 December 1

Is it possible to predict the future? Apparently, Richard Feynman could.

He dreamed up some of the today’s most exciting technologies, like nanotech and quantum computing, decades ago.  Moreover, these weren’t mere daydreams or flashes of inspiration; he foresaw how they would actually work, what problems would have to be overcome, etc.

Although regarded by many adoring scientists as a ‘magician,” Feynman wasn’t clairvoyant and there was no mystery surrounding his work.  He followed clear principles that we can all follow.

Curiosity About Everyday Things

Feynman never set out to predict the future.  What interested him most were everyday things.  He just wanted to know how things around him worked.

For instance, one day he was in the university cafeteria at Cornell and noticed a dish spinning in the air.  The dish had a small university logo on it and Feynman noticed that it was wobbling as the dish spun.  He found the phenomenon strangely interesting and tried to figure out how it worked.

So while his colleagues were thinking about the new science of quantum mechanics, he was thinking about dishes spinning and wobbling (much to the amusement of those around him).  He worked on the problem intensely for weeks and eventually figured it out.

It turned out that the principles he discovered also applied to sub-atomic particles and the work led to a Nobel Prize for quantum electrodynamics (much to the astonishment of those around him).

Intense curiosity about everyday things seems to be a common attribute of great thinkers. Einstein’s fascination with the clock he passed everyday to work at the patent office reportedly led to his theory of relativity.

G. H. Hardy discovered one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, Ramanujan, mainly because he was the only one of any prominence to actually read his letter.  All the other “great” mathematical thinkers of the day were to busy to spend time on correspondence with an impoverished young Indian from an obscure little town in the sub-continent.

Luckily, Hardy was also one of the few thinkers of his day who was able to recognize that Ramanujan’s almost indecipherable scrawls represented solutions to problems that mathematicians had struggled with for centuries.  The work was beyond the capabilities of lesser minds.

It is ironic that often the greatest thinkers who see the farthest are also the ones who pay the closest attention to what is going on around them.

Amalgamation of Facts into Principles

When Feynman was a child, his father used to read him the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was made up of 24 enormous volumes.  As an adult, he wondered why it had to be so big, why you couldn’t fit it on the head of a pin.

He knew that by reversing a microscope you can reverse its effects (which is why a magnifying glass can be used to burn paper on a sunny day).  Why not an electron microscope?  He thought up several ways in which the process could work.

If an encyclopedia could be shrunk down to an atomic level then why not a machine?  He looked at how machines were made and concluded that in some ways, making machines smaller would be easier.  They wouldn’t lose as much heat and therefore they would be more energy efficient and not wear down as fast.

He then concluded that if we could make such machines, it might be possible to “swallow a surgeon” and not have to have operations.

These weren’t mere musings nor where they mysterious. Step by step, each one the logical consequence of the previous; he was creating a 21st century industry in the middle of the 20th.

He combined these simple ideas into a nice little talk he gave in 1959 that launched the present field of Nanotechnology.  He didn’t call it “great thoughts of a visionary” or “how I can predict the future,” just simply “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”

That’s how Feynman worked.  He would take one concept and see where else he could apply it.  He would think about what would have to be improved and how it could be.  Although, he may have sounded crazy when he spoke about these ideas in 1959, the technology is driving many of the most exciting new products coming on the market today.

Acknowledge the Messiness of the World

Feynman spoke simply, but he didn’t try to tie up everything in a neat little box.  He knew the world was a messy place and whatever rules he found would apply well some places and not in others.

He spoke often about the need to recognize inconvenient facts.  He said about nature, “That’s the way it looks!  If you don’t like it, go somewhere else – to another universe where the rules are simpler… I’m not going to simplify it.”

Only Feynman could make people laugh while announcing that he had just changed our conception of the universe. (See video below)

Feynman was not simply dreaming, he was looking for problems to solve.  He recognized that as he was imagining a changed world, new difficulties would arise.  For example, when you make things very small, you have to worry about the fact that molecular forces are strong enough to become a design factor.

Every solution changes reality a bit and that creates more problems to solve.


Even among eminent scientists, Feynman was famous for his ability to focus his tremendous energy on a problem over a long period until it was solved.  He left no stone unturned.

Freeman Dyson said of Feynman, “He built his new theories brick by brick on the foundation of the old.”  “Illumination came to him the hard way, not in a flash of genius but in a slow dawn of understanding after long nights of hard work.”

The famous magician, James Randi, used to play practical jokes on Feynman and afterwards Feynman would try to figure out how Randi did them.  Feynman would call for weeks, peppering him with questions until he eventually figured out the trick.  The questions never stopped until the illusionist’s trick was revealed.

Trendspotting as Discovery

What made Feynman such a fantastic thinker was that he was always trying to learn a little bit more about how the universe worked, whether it was one of Randi’s pranks or the mysteries of a quantum “foam.”  He said, “I would rather be right, than brilliant.”

He never took a stake in the answer; he just wanted to find out what it was.  He didn’t predict but often foretold.

In the world of business, the future is an extremely valuable thing so it’s not surprising that there are many who claim the inside track of tomorrow.  The chosen few will be hailed (usually by themselves) as visionaries.

The others get to try again.  There is always a new quarter, a new season, a new industry, etc.  New predictions will be made and the odds are that everybody will be right about something sometime.

Data can be gathered to support any point of view.  Surveys are long enough so that the right questions with the right answers can be selected and contrary evidence can be filtered out.  A trip to the mall can uncover local phenomena, but global reality is often messy.  A lot goes on in the world and much of it is contradictory.

What’s missing in most efforts is the desire for discovery – a yearning to uncover just a little bit more about how the world works each day.  That requires being wrong far more often than being right and testing your ideas far more rigorously than a casual observer would.  Sources of error are pervasive, correlation is not causality.

Watchmaking vs. Timetelling

The nice thing about the future is that it hasn’t happened yet.  Problems are everywhere and they all need to be solved.  Feynman was truly a genius, something very few of us can or will ever be.  However, we can all do our part to uncover a small bit of truth and share it with others.

G.H. Hardy, one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century was humbled by the genius of Ramanujan, the impoverished young prodigy he had discovered.  Near the end of his life, in judgment of himself, he wrote:

I have added something to knowledge, and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value which differs in degree only, and not in kind, from the creations of the great mathematicians…

The true and valuable trends are those that don’t reverse themselves.  They point to the future because they represent real progress.  They are revealed less through certainty and more through wonder.

- Greg

16 Responses leave one →
  1. December 1, 2009

    Re: “Freeman Dyson said of Feynman, “He built his new theories brick by brick on the foundation of the old.””
    Well, that’s the only way to compound knowledge. As Hegel aptly observed, any accumulation of information eventually and inevitably leads to the discovery of an essential quality of that quantitative sumum – hence relevant to your article is the fact that the ‘effort’ of thinking has qualitative value in itself (Vernunft) even if the conclusion may be erroneous. Yet, even an erroneous conclusion is temporary and it is replaced by a more suitable conclusion. Building on suitable conclusions (brick by brick, etc) is theorizing. Newton theorized. Einstein theorized. And two billion people believe that the world was started six thousand years ago. Who precludes them from theorizing and perhaps doubting? Perhaps the comfortable sub-mediocrity of obedience… Thinking hurts.


    Greg Reply:


    Good point. Thinking hurts. Ouch!


    - Greg


  2. December 1, 2009

    When I was a little kid and the TV’s were still black and white, I was bothered by not knowing how they worked. It is hard for a kid asking these questions to differentiate adults that don’t know or gives you a simple story because they doubt your capability. My life has been spent figuring out how things work. A lot of people don’t have any interest and never thought to ask, others think they know armed with it goes into the camera and comes out on the flat screen.
    I read my first Feynman book (QED) the day before Thanksgiving in about 3 hours. It was the most excitement I think I have ever had from a book. I will spend weeks now going through old text books trying to figure out some of the associated math but the book was profound for me. Earlier in life after finishing several classes studying quantum effects, I decided that this subject was in search of a Newton to invent both the math and the real world model. Thirty years later this book put me back on this fundamental riddle. Now again I want to know what happens between the camera and the flat screen.
    Thanks for your article I enjoyed it very much.


    Greg Reply:


    Thanks for a great story. I also remember black and white TV’s (although I read considerably more slowly than you do!).



  3. December 2, 2009

    Great stuff, Greg.

    My read of Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman! revealed Feynman to be a pretty competitive guy; he liked getting the answer and he knew how to enjoy a practical joke now and again himself.

    I also experience Feynman as very Jewish, although–unlike Einstein–the religion apparently meant nothing to him.

    As a fellow stamp collector, which I believe was only a tangent for Feynman rather than the addiction it is for some of us, I would certainly like to have a few of his specimens from Tanna Tuva.


    Greg Reply:


    He was intensely competitive and very Jewish. Einstein, by the way, wasn’t actually very religious. He was more like Spinoza. He believed in the general concept but didn’t practice seriously.

    - Greg


  4. December 2, 2009

    What we tend to forget is how beautiful Feynman wrote in English. He may have been a bit Bronxy academically, but one has to consider the times when his character was shaped up, during a somewhat adversarial period (when Jews = communists) and when being a Jew or Jewish was still a challenge in heavily Protestant America.

    Whereas Einstein couldn’t care less about delivery. He used to say that if he could make a ten-year old understand what he was trying to say his communication performance would be more than satisfactory.

    You’re right, Greg, at the confluence between the disappearing Sephardi ‘domination’ and the take over of western Europe by Ashkenazim (and when culturally, Kakania was at its peak) Einstein preferred abstractions as a way of escaping to safer levels from the tumultuous reality of his time (as Kurt Lewin would explain in his field analysis); hence the ‘comfortable’ job at the patent office. Although he was not religious, Einstein was seeking spirituality (true, like Spinoza, who considered that his conversion in itself was no reason to consider that he had lost his core beliefs). It is less known that Einstein even said a couple of times (at parties) that astrology is more honest than organized religion (Hear, hear Bill Maher!)

    I think that ‘Feynstein’ himself would have liked a job at the patent office in order to encounter all kinds of oddities uttered by people with ‘original thinking’ and be highly amused if not mentally aroused. There nothing greater in business life than marketing someone’s (unfinished) great idea. Of course, I don’t refer to Bill Gates.

    Ooof, what a rant!


    Greg Reply:


    Another point is that Feynman was a very gifted and very successful teacher, who said that teaching wasn’t something that he could live without. Einstein never really taught.

    - Greg


  5. December 2, 2009

    Greg – another thought provoking post – thanks! I read Feynman’s “nice” little speech on the other end of your link. To be able to see that far into now from way back then is an amazing feat. And the man is truly inspirational, and your interpretations of his work and others are valuable insights – so all that is what I’m thanking you for. But I disagree with one line: “It is ironic that often the greatest thinkers who see the farthest are also the ones who pay the closest attention to what is going on around them.”
    I think the one leads to the other, for how can you understand the fundamentals of anything (the bottom bricks), if you don’t study every brick you see to be able to tell the difference between the foundation bricks, the decorative ones and the keystone?
    I guess one of the reasons I enjoyed the article so much is that I recently posted something on our site of a similar nature – no, not about Richard, but about looking ahead to what’s in store for us as we migrate to a digital world, away from our traditional, and sensory-rich experiences.


    Greg Reply:


    Thanks for commenting and thanks for sharing you blog post with me. I would like to raise an interesting point that you might not have known:

    When Duncan Watts first started thinking about Social Networks, he thought back to the Isaac Asimov books he loved so much as a kid. To solve the riddle of how everybody could be 6 handshakes away from the president, he thought of two extreme examples, cavemen who whose connections all knew each other and spacemen who only communicated remotely.

    The latter example, of course, came from The Naked Sun – the same book you referred to in your post! The mathematical model he created became the foundation of modern network theory.

    - Greg


  6. Peter permalink
    December 2, 2009

    If anyone needs to know Einstein’s real thoughts on religion, they should google the “auction of Einstein’s letters.” Unfortunately there are a lot of lies about his true opinion of religion being spread by certain groups.


    Greg Reply:


    I think most of the confusion about Einsteins faith stems from the fact that he himself was quite ambiguous. As the letters you referred to show, he was indifferent, and sometimes hostile, to the concept of organized religion.

    His feelings toward Zionism typified why there is so much confusion. Initially, he was against the idea for a state of Israel, but later became a supporter and was even offered the post of President. In truth, he was closest to Spinoza’s conception. He believed in a unifying force and order to the universe, but probably not a God that intervened in the world.

    This was the basis of his skepticism towards Quantum Mechanics of which he said “God does not play dice with he universe.”

    “Einstein, stop telling God what to do!” Niels Bohr replied.

    - Greg


  7. December 2, 2009

    Thanks for that interesting tidbit – I did not know it. Azimov, too, was one of those forward thinkers. The novel The Naked Sun was not nearly as good as the first in the Robot series (Caves of Steel), but its view of the future appears to be prescient.


  8. Joseph Beckenbach permalink
    December 3, 2009

    Wonderful article. Takes me back 20-25 years too.

    As it seems for all great teachers, he went well beyond just teaching his core subject, no matter what it was. I never did get to any of his “Physics X” ‘courses’, sort of an open microphone for approaching and understanding physics in its bewildering variety. Friends who did tell me that, no matter whether the questions came from freshmen or full professors, or whom he dragged in to tag-team on a question, he kept it lively, fun, and understandable for folks across a range of abilities.

    Like many great teachers, he truly enjoyed being out front and bringing people along on the journey of learning. Most of my exposure to Feynman was through his “Lectures” book series and through the theater. (!) He’d do cameos in many of Caltech’s musicals through the last several years of his life — I narrowly missed being in a “chorus-line of janitors” with him when we put on “How to Succeed at Business (Without Really Trying)” — and even backstage he’d be there, helping a student learn to puzzle out some concept in calculus, or egging a graduate student on to really think through the consequences of assumptions made in her research work.

    Above all, he resparked and fanned the wonder we all had/have. That I think is what marked him to us as one of the truly great teachers.


    Greg Reply:


    Wonderful! Thanks for that.

    - Greg


  9. December 26, 2009

    Volodymyr Vernadsky [The Biosphere] and Teilhard de Chardin as early as 1922 conceived a notion of a “world wide web” …

    Einstein was contradictory about his support for Israel with his, “Nationalism is an infantile disease, the measles of mankind.”


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