Richard Feynman and the cargo cult

Comparing ourselves to our heroes is never easy, especially when that hero made physics cool in the 80s. Tim Newport explores how imitating our idols doesn’t necessarily lead to success.

 Illustration by  Meg Gough-Brooks

Illustration by Meg Gough-Brooks

Model Specimens is a monthly column that explores the role models who inspired today's scientists and artists. This month, Tim Newport, a writer and editor at Lot's Wife, shares how Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman almost hindered their path in life.

In 1974, theoretical physicist Richard Feynman gave the commencement address at the California Institute of Technology, and warned the graduates not to fall prey to “cargo cult” science:

In the South Seas there is a cargo cult of people. During the war they saw airplanes land with lots of good materials, and they want the same thing to happen now. So they've arranged to imitate things like runways, to put fires along the sides of the runways, to make a wooden hut for a man to sit in, with two wooden pieces on his head like headphones and bars of bamboo sticking out like antennas — he's the controller — and they wait for the airplanes to land. They're doing everything right. The form is perfect. It looks exactly the way it looked before. But it doesn't work. No airplanes land. So I call these things cargo cult science, because they follow all the apparent precepts and forms of scientific investigation, but they're missing something essential, because the planes don't land.

He was speaking of the Melanesian people who reconciled their traditional beliefs with the technology that landed on their doorstep by adopting the physical trappings, without the actual process. This cargo cult science, he cautioned, was easy to fall into; too many people accepting an experiment’s results without proper investigation would lead science backward, not forward.

But there was subtler dimension to his warning. If you blindly accept your own premises untested, then you set yourself up for failure. Fooling yourself, he said, was the easiest thing to do.

 

 

Richard Feynman was born in 1918 in Queens, New York. Like Einstein, he was a late talker, and his parents fostered his intense curiosity of the world around him. He would spend hours in his homemade laboratory, repairing radios and playing with a home chemistry set — nearly burning the house down on several occasions.

He taught himself trigonometry, advanced algebra, infinite series, analytic geometry, and both differential and integral calculus by the time he was 15. Accepted to MIT, he developed a new method of calculating forces in molecules for his undergraduate thesis. The first seminar he gave upon graduating was even attended by Albert Einstein, Wolfgang Pauli, and John von Neumann. Attaining a perfect entrance score, he went on to do his PhD at Princeton, and again left his mark: redirecting quantum mechanics’ focus from a solely wave-based approach to a particle-based one, based on the principle of least action.

These leaps and bounds through the fog of theoretical physics did not go unnoticed. When Robert Oppenheimer was constructing a team of physicists, engineers and mathematicians to staff the top-secret Los Alamos facility, purpose-built to create the world’s first nuclear weapon, Feynman was an obvious choice. There he joined Hans Bethe, Niels Bohr and a swath of the best and brightest scientists of the day. He helped develop some of the first equations for calculating the yield of a nuclear bomb, and gained a reputation as a troublemaker. Bored by the isolation and censored communications, he took it upon himself to crack the codes of his colleagues’ safes and filing cabinets, often leaving notes in top-secret files.

Following the successful development and deployment of the nuclear bomb — and the end of World War II — Feynman completed research fellowships at Cornell University and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech). During this time, he developed the theory of quantum electrodynamics with Julian Schwinger and Sin-Itiro Tomonaga, work for which he would later win the Nobel Prize in Physics.

Through all of this, he was best known as an iconoclast, with little patience (or even manners) for conventional modes of thinking. He interrupted famous physicists, created his own notation for doing calculus, and even invented an entirely new visual language for representing particle interactions. A prolific populariser of science, he published his lectures and created a layman’s introduction to physics called Six Easy Pieces.

Feynman’s most enduring legacy, however, was his reputation. Known as a quick-witted raconteur with a thick Brooklyn accent (he “spoke like a bum” according to Hans Bethe), he enjoyed relating physics as entertaining tales. More often than not though, he was the star of these asides: fellow Caltech physicist Murray Gell-Mann once said that "[Feynman] was a great scientist, but he spent a great deal of his effort generating anecdotes about himself." These tales were collected and published as two bestselling books in the 1980s, and drove his popularity so high that Apple used photos of him in their “Think Different” ad campaign. Physics was cool, and no one was cooler than Feynman.

 

 

I was destined to be a scientist, I told myself. In primary school, I would read science books instead of playing on the playground. In high school, I looked forward to every physics and chemistry class, and won a state prize for a science competition. I spent my summers playing with prisms and attending science camps. It was clear what path my life would take, and everyone in my life encouraged me to follow it.

But then I graduated high school, and this big fish’s small pond became an ocean of sharks. Pressured to aim high, I was accepted into a nanotechnology course at Flinders University, and studied physics, chemistry and calculus simultaneously. It would be fine. After all, science was my passion.

Things quickly went downhill. What I had once understood instinctively now became a daily struggle, and my marks dropped like a stone. I felt ostracised from my classmates, afraid to study with them for fear of revealing my ignorance. I couldn’t understand. Why was something I used to love now so difficult to do? I changed degrees, cities, and universities, moving to Monash to study a double degree. Perhaps I was just bad at nanotech, I thought. Surely focusing on physics and adding an arts major would help me Achieve My Dream™. Five failed units and two years later, I discovered the real problem.

I was doing everything right, but no airplanes were landing.

While I was chasing the dream, I idolised those who had shaped my idea of what a scientist was, and Feynman was at the forefront. I printed out photos, wrote his quotes on my whiteboard, and read his biographies. I was obsessed with his life, and tried my hardest to be as funny, clever, and smart as he was. If I just mimicked him enough, his success might rub off on me.  Surely something would just click, my natural talents would materialise and launch me into my successful physics career.

Through all this, I had purposefully ignored that things weren’t working out. I accepted my boredom (and often unconsciousness) during calculus classes as an inherent part of study, and rationalised my aversion to physics tutorials as normal stress. 

I had built my life around a tenuous ideal, and examining it was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But asking the question of what I really wanted was the only way to find an answer, and answers were exactly what I needed.

The answer came as another question: what did I want out of my degree? I realised that I didn’t need to plan my whole life right now, only the units I wanted to study. I elected to drop physics entirely, and power on through my degree studying what I wanted, rather than what I felt I had to. I studied geology, astrophysics, and atmospheric sciences, alongside a journalism degree. I was interested, I was energised, and most importantly, I felt I was carving my own path. I may have not been as sure of my decisions as I was before, but at least now, I knew they were mine.

Our heroes can inspire us, reassure us, and motivate us, but we can’t let them control us. It’s no good just waiting for the plane to land: we need to be able to plot our flight paths ourselves.

Edited by Tessa Evans and Nicola McCaskill