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The Feynman Lectures on Physics

Came across this gem today.  It’s rare that one can get real candor from a super successful person in academia about how they really feel about their performance.  One of my heroes, Richard Feynman, didn’t bat 1.000 all the time.  He had periods of lower productivity, and during a particular 2 year span (1961-63), he felt he had accomplished no meaningful research: “At the end of the two years [1961-63] I felt that I had wasted two years, that I had done no research during this entire period and I was muttering to this effect.”  However, this was the period during which he taught a class in introductory physics to undergraduates at Caltech, and the lecture notes from these classes were used to create the famous “Feynman Lectures on Physics” text.  At the time, Feynman was unsatisfied by his performance in teaching these classes, saying in response to the average grade achieved in the class,  “Oh, that’s terrible, they should have done better than that. I am a failure.”

In his later years, Feynman’s views on his teaching performance softened, as he began to appreciate the wide-ranging and long-term impact those lectures and the book had on physics.  “I must admit now that I cannot deny that they are really a contribution to the physics world.”

It’s reassuring to me that one of the greats of science also had periods of low productivity and failure.  Failure is difficult to diagnose in the moment, as Feynman’s later understanding of the impact of his teaching reveals.  Regarding his research productivity, it took until 1967 when Feynman apparently was reminded of his approach to scientific work after reading a draft of James Watson’s accounting of the discovery of the structure of DNA.  His colleague David Goodstein relates that Feynman pressed the book upon him, insisting that he read it immediately.

So I read that book, from one o’clock to five o’clock in the morning with Feynman sitting across the room watching me, waiting for me to finish so we could discuss it.  At a certain point, I said, “Watson must have been either very lucky or very smart, because he never knew anything that anybody else was doing, and he still made the crucial discovery.”

Feynman had been doodling on a pad of paper, and he had written the one word DISREGARD, which he had then illuminated, decorated.  He jumped up and said, “That’s what I learned from reading it.  I used to know it, and I forgot it– I have to disregard everybody else, and then I can do my own work.”

As soon as it was a respectable hour in California he called his wife, and he said, “I think I’m going to be able to work again!”

Image By Barak Sh (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons