Freeman Dyson on Richard Feynman

Source: Nautilus, Dec 2016

What made Feynman different from other scientists?

He was extremely original. He had his own way of doing science, which was different from everybody else. That’s why he had a hard time communicating. He never wrote down equations. Most people in physics write down an equation and then find the solutions, but that wasn’t the way Feynman did it. Feynman would just write down the solutions without ever writing the equations. It seemed like a sort of magic because he thought in terms of pictures instead of equations. He had these little pictures in his head and he scribbled little pictures on paper and nobody understood what they meant. My job was to translate Feynman into language other people could understand.

Do you need to be willing to risk your reputation and pursue crazy ideas? Is that what leads to great breakthroughs?

First of all, it helps to be ignorant. The time when I did my best work was when I was most ignorant. Knowing too much is a great handicap. Especially if you’ve been teaching for some years, things get so fixed in your mind and it’s impossible to think outside the box. I was in the lucky position of jumping into physics without ever having taken any courses in physics. I’d only been a pure mathematician up to that point.

Is the great scientist also naturally subversive?

Yes, undoubtedly. You’ve got to destroy what exists in order to build something new. You need good taste, of course. If you destroy indiscriminately, it doesn’t help at all. That’s where intuition comes in—what parts of the old building should be taken down.

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