Feynman vs. Gell-Mann

Tuesday Trivia is a weekly segment, introduced here, that will highlight anything I find interesting and fun to learn. Today’s post will just be about why trivia is important (a contradictory statement) with a little bit of trivia sprinkled in.

One interesting, high-spirited rivalry that occurred in the mid-20th century was between CalTech physicists Richard Feynman and Murray Gell-Mann. They were collaborators and colleagues, but it seemed as if their argumentative spirits often overcame polite cooperation when they were in each other’s company. It went so far as to prompt Feynman’s wife to comment on how she avoided bringing the two in close proximity for extended periods of time.

One major difference between the two was the phraseology and syntax each used. Feynman is well-known for his quirky, crazy form of communication. His fast-talking, onomatopoeic language and complete disregard for who he was speaking to sometimes led to trouble, which is often highlighted in his semi-autobiography Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! On the other side of the coin was Gell-Mann. Gell-Mann was a notorious pedant and master of language and facts. Gell-Mann even named the quark, the elementary particle that composes protons and neutrons, after a quote from a literary work by James Joyce.  His fixation on what Feynman considered trivial knowledge often led to heated arguments between the two.

One story relates Gell-Mann at a dinner party, pointing out that someone’s statement was “a pleonasm”. No one at the table, Feynman included, had any idea what a pleonasm was. Gell-Mann clarified: it’s a form of redundancy. Feynman was always attempting to catch Gell-Mann making a mistake, so he and the host went into the library and looked pleonasm up in the dictionary. Sure enough, Gell-Mann was right again, causing Feynman to slam his fist on the table and exclaim, he’s always right, always!

A dichotomy between two camps in education can be teased out from this rivalry the two great scientists shared: those who believe students should learn by applying themselves and discovering the world and those who believe students should learn by rote memorization. I believe that this is a false dichotomy and that both sides should be considered important in education. In Moonwalking with Einstein, Joshua Foer argues that to achieve a higher level of learning, you must be able to analyze. The ability to analyze requires information retrieval, which by definition involves memorization. Tony Buzan, author and educational consultant, further elaborates on this and states that students need rote memorization to learn how to learn. Of course, it’s important to note that Feynman’s argument for developing a physical understanding of the world instead of just memorizing names and facts should not be cast aside. Learning through discovery is more likely the dominating argument (which can be seen by changes in the focus of education in the past few decades), but facts and names that seem trivial can assist in understanding the world.

A paradigm shift to creating complex thinkers by having students explore should not involve denigrating the value of trivia. Students should be encouraged to find a balance between developing an understanding of the world by thinking, like Feynman advocated, and also valuing the legacy left by others, like Gell-Mann believed in. Even if you don’t agree with any of this, maybe you’ll agree with this simple statement: learning trivia is fun. There are often entertaining facts that can make you say, “Woah!”, even if you forget them a second later. With that note, here is some trivia about Feynman.

Richard Feynman was a theoretical physicist in charge of a group that worked on the Manhattan Project, the project that developed the atomic bomb in Los Alamos. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics and taught at Cornell and CalTech.

Los Alamos, by no means a large city today, was even more desolate in the 1940s. To occupy himself, Feynman began attempting to learn how to crack safes. He quickly learned that there is no surefire way to open a safe, and most safecracking books discussed methods such as trying the default combination for the particular safe, looking on the desk for the safe combination on a slip of paper, or just plain guessing. He also learned methods of narrowing down the number of combinations to try if he was just going to guess. One time, he was trying to show people how he used this technique and picked two random numbers for the first two numbers. He spun the wheel again and the lock clicked. He had defied the odds and guessed the first two number correctly. He pretended like it was no accident and thus developed a reputation as a master safecracker, even though he really had no clue what he was doing.

While at CalTech, he decided he wanted to learn to draw. He employed an artistic friend to teach him and eventually developed his skills enough that his friend recommended he try to sell some of his paintings. He wanted the art to sell by its own merit, not by the novelty of a famous physicist making art, so he took the pseudonym “Ofey”. This was his phonetic spelling of the French phrase “Au Fait”, which means “It is done”.

Feynman is celebrated for his seminal work in physics and the lectures he gave as a professor. He also served on the committee that investigated the crash of the Challenger mission in 1986. Feynman had proposed that the O-ring seal had likely failed in the cold weather, which the commission ultimately determined was the primary cause of the crash.

And to end, a quote from Feynman:

“I have a friend who’s an artist, and he sometimes takes a view which I don’t agree with. He’ll hold up a flower and say, ‘Look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. But then he’ll say, ‘I, as an artist, can see how beautiful a flower is. But you, as a scientist, take it all apart and it becomes dull.’ I think he’s kind of nutty. There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”

Criticism, comments, corrections and additions are appreciated. You can also submit your own ideas for awesome trivia.

Further reading:

  1. Feynman Anecdotes
  2. Wikipedia – Murray Gell-Mann
  3. Wikipedia – Richard Feynman
  4. Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman
  5. Moonwalking with Einstein 
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