The Mind of a Scientist

The Mind of a Scientist

By Eileen Pollack

Most nonphysicists were introduced to Richard Feynman’s unique brand of intuitive, gut-level science during the 1986 hearings to investigate the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger. After days of debate as to whether cold weather might have caused the shuttle’s rubber O-rings to lose resiliency, Feynman ended the argument by dropping an O-ring in a glass of ice water and telling the commission, “I took this stuff that I got out of your seal and I put it in ice water, and I discovered that when you put some pressure on it for a while and then undo it, it doesn’t stretch back. … I believe that has some significance for our problem.”

But even when I was an undergraduate studying physics at Yale in the 1970s, Feynman was larger than life—the prankster who had spooked his fellow scientists at Los Alamos by guessing the combination of the safe that held the secrets to the atomic bomb; the last living link to Einstein, who had attended Feynman’s first lecture, while Feynman was a graduate student at Princeton; the winner of a Nobel Prize for his theory of Quantum Electrodynamics; and the inventor of a stunningly simple set of diagrams that allow physicists to keep track of the complex interactions among particles and antiparticles in space-time. Rangy, tousle-headed, iconoclastic, Feynman exuded what passed for cool among physicists of the era—he played the bongos, was an unabashed devotee of topless bars, and had the perfect excuse for his womanizing in the tragic death of his teenage sweetheart, who had succumbed to tuberculosis while her young husband was saving the free world at Los Alamos.

When I failed my first physics midterm and my professor advised that I “sit down and study Feynman,” he was referring to the three red volumes that contained the intro- ductory lectures Feynman had delivered at Caltech in the sixties. The first page of each book displays a photo of the Great Man Himself, so every time I sat down to read The Feynman Lectures on Physics, I was reminded of what a real physicist should look like, his face hawklike in intelligence, everything about his demeanor vibrant and energetic, his hands moving so fast you could almost see the sound waves rising from the drums. A female student sitting down to read the Lectures had a hard time putting herself in the shoes of the brash, bongo-playing womanizer who had written them. But that was what the lectures really were about. Feynman’s goal wasn’t to teach you this or that physical law—only a fool would attempt to memorize all the laws of physics. What the author of the Lectures wanted to teach was how to be Richard Feynman. The difference between reading an ordinary physics textbook and reading Feynman was the difference between taking lessons at an Arthur Murray studio and hanging around while Rudolph Nureyev choreographed a new ballet.

The comparison to Nureyev isn’t farfetched. According to his biographer, James Gleick, colleagues who watched Feynman concentrate on a problem “came away with a strong, even disturbing sense of the physicality of the process, as though his brain did not stop with the gray matter but extended through every muscle in his body.” Once, when Feynman was an undergrad at Cornell, a classmate came in and saw him rolling around on the floor, which was Feynman’s way of doing his homework. For Feynman, the elements of nature “interacted with palpable, variegated, fluttering rhythms.”

This was what a male classmate had tried to tell me when I confessed that I was foundering. When confronted with a problem, this student said, you shouldn’t just plug the data into some equation. Rather, you should close your eyes and visualize the objects in the problem moving and interacting. What usually came first for Feynman was the image, the dance. Only after he had gotten the picture clear in his head did he attempt to communicate his intuition via math.

In a slim volume called Feynman’s Tips on Physics, which is basically a transcript of the review sessions that Feynman held for the students who were failing his course at Caltech, he attempts to convey what it means to use physical intuition to solve a problem. The examples Feynman offers are so effective that even if you flunked general science in high school, you can appreciate what he’s doing. (If you flunked general science and ended up working as a carpenter, you will have exactly the sort of physical intuition Feynman is trying to impart.) Imagine you are faced with a concrete block supported on top of two steel rods that are arranged in a giant inverted V. Each rod has a roller at the bottom, so the block moves up or down as the rods roll closer or farther apart. Now think about the ways the block distributes its weight through the rods to the rollers. Anyone knows that if you shove the rollers closer to each other, so the block is way up high, a lot of the force will be exerted downward on the rods, with very little force exerted sideways.

“If you can’t see it,” Feynman says, “it’s hard to explain why—but if you try to hold something up with a ladder, say, and you get the ladder directly under the thing, it’s easy to keep the ladder from sliding out. But if the ladder is leaning way waaaaay out, so that the far end of the ladder is only a very tiny distance from the ground, you’ll find a nearly infinite horizontal force is required to hold the thing up at a very slight angle. Now, all these things you can feel. You don’t have to feel them; you can work them out by making diagrams and calculations, but as problems get more and more difficult, and as you try to understand nature in more and more complicated situations, the more you can guess at, feel, and understand without actually calculating, the much better off you are!”

The funny thing is that even though I had never worked construction and would have been doubly lacking in confidence as the only woman in the class Feynman was teaching at Caltech, I did have some of the intuition he was attempting to impart. I would have had a lot more of that intuition if I had grown up building tree houses and tinkering with car engines, or if I had been allowed to take shop in junior high instead of home economics. But even I could have told you where you needed to push to keep that ladder from collapsing. What I didn’t have was the courage to trust my intuition.

Even though women are commonly assumed to be more intuitive than men, when it comes to physics and math, they are, on the whole, far less likely than men to trust that intuition. Whenever I thought of a question, I assumed that the answer must be obvious, or that someone had already solved it, and that if someone hadn’t solved it, who was I to think I could? This was the real lesson I wish I had learned from Feynman: if a question puzzled me, it must be important, and I had—or could develop—the intuition and skill to come up with an answer. Being baffled by the same questions that baffled a Nobel Prize winner doesn’t make a young physics student a genius. But it is a sure sign that the student is thinking creatively—and that she has what it takes to become a scientist.

Eileen Pollack is a professor of creative writing at the University of Michigan and the author of numerous works of fiction and nonfiction, including the novel Breaking and Entering. This essay is adapted from her forthcoming book, Approaching Infinity: A Memoir about Women in Science. Pollack’s essay “Why Are There Still So Few Women in Science?” appeared in the October 3, 2013, issue of The New York Times Magazine.