Richard Feynman’s “The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”: Book Review, Notes + Analysis

Poor Ash’s Almanack > Book Reviews > Effective Thinking

Overall Rating: ★★★★★ (5/7) (solid for its category)

Learning Potential / Utility: ★★★★★ (5/7)

Readability: ★★★★★★★ (7/7)

Challenge Level: 2/5 (Easy) | ~250 pages ex-notes (288 officially)

Blurb/Description: An array of lectures and interviews, lightly edited for readability, offer readers a chance to spend a few hours looking at the world through the eyes of the witty (and sharp) Richard Feynman.

Summary: I ordered and read multiple Feynman books because he’s held in high esteem by many, and also because I wanted to learn a little bit more about science and physics.  Readers looking to learn a lot about physics are better off consulting Feynman’s classic lectures on physics.  On the other hand, readers looking to broaden their perspective on the world in general will find The Pleasure of Finding Things Out to be a quick, enjoyable read with plenty of learning opportunities (if perhaps not as delightful as insightful as some ardent Feynman fans make it out to be.)

While some of the lectures are a bit more technical in nature (predicting developments in nanotechnology and computers) and offer direct insight into how Feynman’s brain works “on science,” much of the book is more broadly applicable to how Feynman approached the world in general, focusing on concepts for effective thinking.

Highlights: Feynman provides a number of angles on important topics like probabilistic thinking,confirmation bias, and other topics; he’s an independent thinker who is (by his own admission) completely unafraid to “break the rules” and say unpopular things.  He’s also a great communicator – even when the material is occasionally technical or deeply analytical, it’s very engaging, accessible, and down-to-earth in a way that plenty of famous scientists are not.

Mental Model / ART Thinking Pointsutilityempathysalience / vividnessconsistency bias / sunk costssocial proofinversionscientific thinkingprobabilistic thinkingtrait adaptivitymemory /multitaskingconfirmation bias, prediction vs. accuracy, 80/20utilityideology, local s. global optimizationn-order impacts, reason-respecting tendency, novelty-seeking, intellectual humility,rationality, a/b testing, process vs. outcomemargin of safetycultureanchoring, multicausality and disaggregation.

You should buy a copy of The Pleasure of Finding Things Out if: you want a completely non-investing-related perspective on “sound thinking,” in the vein of, but more broad and less technical than, How Doctors Think.

Reading Tips: skip the foreword, which is long on poetry and short on anything useful.  Do, however, read the editor’s introduction.  Note that this is not a “book” so much as a collection of lectures/speeches/interviews, so if for whatever reason one of the sections is uninteresting to you, you can skip to the next chapter without having to worry about losing anything useful.  If you are crunched for time, you will get probably at least half the value out of just reading three sections: Chapter 1 (“The Pleasure of Finding Things Out”) starting on page 1, Chapter 3 (“Los Alamos from Below”) starting on page 53, and Chapter 10 (“Cargo Cult Science”), the Caltech commmencement address, starting on page 205.  If you have time for a fourth, check out the fourth section, The Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society.

There’s also significant overlap toward the end of the book; for example, Chapter 4 (“What Is And What Should Be The Role Of Scientific Culture In Modern Society” covers a lot of the same ground as Chapter 6 (“The Value of Science”) and Chapter 8 (“What Is Science”), so I ended up skimming those last two pretty heavily.

Additionally, I would personally skip 12 and 13 entirely for separate reasons – 12 (“Richard Feynman Builds A Universe”) just isn’t very useful/interesting after having read the rest of the book, not to mention that the interview format is annoying,, and 13 (“The Relation of Science And Religion”) is not a topic of particular intellectual interest to me at this time, as I’ve never been religious or had any real interest in thinking about Big Metaphysical Questions of the religious variety – although it may well be interesting to others.

Pairs Well With:

The Making of the Atomic Bomb” by Richard Rhodes (TMAB review + notes).  Feynman talks about his time at Los Alamos; the Manhattan Project is a fascinating story.

How Doctors Think” by Jerome Groopman (HDT review + notes).  There are a lot of parallels in the probabilistic way Feynman thinks and the way that doctors are trained to think when diagnosing patients’ conditions.

Polio: An American Story” by David Oshinsky (PaaS review + notes).  My favorite science-history book, this one – set during the same time period – gives a practical spin on how scientists do, and don’t, think well.

Reread Value: 3/5 (Medium)

More Detailed Notes (SPOILERS BELOW):

IMPORTANT: the below commentary DOES NOT SUBSTITUTE for READING THE BOOK.  Full stop. This commentary is NOT a comprehensive summary of the lessons of the book, or intended to be comprehensive.  It was primarily created for my own personal reference.

Much of the below will be utterly incomprehensible if you have not read the book, or if you do not have the book on hand to reference.  Even if it was comprehensive, you would be depriving yourself of the vast majority of the learning opportunity by only reading the “Cliff Notes.”  Do so at your own peril.

I provide these notes and analysis for five use cases.  First, they may help you decide which books you should put on your shelf, based on a quick review of some of the ideas discussed.  

Second, as I discuss in the memory mental model, time-delayed re-encoding strengthens memory, and notes can also serve as a “cue” to enhance recall.  However, taking notes is a time consuming process that many busy students and professionals opt out of, so hopefully these notes can serve as a starting point to which you can append your own thoughts, marginalia, insights, etc.

Third, perhaps most importantly of all, I contextualize authors’ points with points from other books that either serve to strengthen, or weaken, the arguments made.  I also point out how specific examples tie in to specific mental models, which you are encouraged to read, thereby enriching your understanding and accelerating your learning.  Combining two and three, I recommend that you read these notes while the book’s still fresh in your mind – after a few days, perhaps.

Fourth, they will hopefully serve as a “discovery mechanism” for further related reading.

Fifth and finally, they will hopefully serve as an index for you to return to at a future point in time, to identify sections of the book worth rereading to help you better address current challenges and opportunities in your life – or to reinterpret and reimagine elements of the book in a light you didn’t see previously because you weren’t familiar with all the other models or books discussed in the third use case.

 

Page xiv – Editor’s Introduction – the discussion of Feynman doing physics “for the fun of it,” which preludes a lot of things Feynman says in the book, and reminds me a bit of parts of Ian Leslie’s Curious.

Page 2 – so, in general, this is one of those books a little bit like Poor Charlie’s Almanack (PCA review + notes) where only half the learning is actual stuff or things or concepts and another half is just getting inside Feynman’s brain and seeing how he thinks about the world. 

That’s a prelude to the actual discussion on the page, which is more or less Feynman has a friend who is an artist and that friend thinks that viewing a flower as a collection of parts and processes makes it less beautiful (and, perhaps, less romantic) than viewing it as a whole.  Feynman disagrees; he thinks that understanding how things work adds another layer of beauty.

I think this discussion is less interesting literally and more as a metaphor for knowledge, and the way people hide behind statements like this as a way to excuse themselves for ineffective yet fixable behavior.  For example, a friend who I really care about disagreed to the point of being distressed/upset with me using words like utility and “emotional payoff” and applying the same rational framework to friendships and relationships that I do to the rest of the world.  In his view, that cheapened or made friendship something less beautiful or rewarding than it was; he viewed my approach (more or less) as cold-hearted, mercenary, and degrading.

That was funny to me because the whole reason I apply the same logic to relationships that I do to the rest of the world is precisely because I’m, in some senses, the overly sensitive artist type.  I jokingly call myself a “semi-retired emo kid” and the semi-retired part is only because I’ve actively worked on it: while it’s hard to be objective about such things, interacting with my friends has always made me feel like I experience both the highs and lows of life meaningfully more acutely than most people (male people, anyway).  In other words, I’m not one of those guys who would frustrate Hermione for having the emotional range of a teaspoon.

It’s precisely because of that sensitivity that I’ve spent so much time and effort working on getting better at relationships and empathy: it’s not for some random other end, but simply because I’d like to spend more time experiencing the joy of relationships (in the broadest sense of the world) going well, and less of the pain of the opposite.  And, like Feynman’s flower, the deeper you get, the more layers of beauty you’re able to recognize.

Pages 3 – 4: first, there’s a nice miniature lesson on contextualization: put statistics into scale by relating them to things you can understand (if a dinosaur was walking around, how big would it be in comparison to the house?).  Then Feynman gives a brief version of his famous story about names vs. knowledge.   Saliencevividness and  utility.

Pages 9-10 – cross reference The Making Of The Atomic Bomb, particularly the part after the bomb goes off – Feynman fairly bluntly notes that he (and everyone else) got into the Manhattan Project for the admirable reason of preventing Hitler from achieving world domination, but never went back to reexamine his original motivations when the world changed.

“The original reason to start the project, which was that the Germans were a danger, started me off on a process of action[…] at Los Alamos, to try to make the bomb work.  […] It was a project on which we all worked very, very hard, all cooperating together.  And with any project like that you continue to work trying to get success, having decided to do it.  

But what I did – immorally I would say – was to not remember the reason that I said I was doing it, so that when the reason changed, because Germany was defeated, not the singlest thought came to my mind at all about that, that that meant now that I have to reconsider why I am continuing to do this.  I simply didn’t think, okay?”

You can, here, start to see some of the psychological dynamics at play – consistency biassunk costssocial proof, etc.

Richard Rhodes’ “The Making of the Atomic Bomb” ( TMAB review + notes) will give you plenty more (and Feynman’s later, longer discursion in the third section (“Los Alamos From Below”) provides some nice context.  This is kind of an example of “thesis drift” although I’m not sure that’s exactly the term I’m looking for…

And then of course, everyone was happy when it went off; the mood was “a very considerable elation and excitement, and there were parties and people got drunk.”  Feynman was “drinking and drunk and playing drums sitting on the hood of a Jeep and playing drums with excitement running all over Los Alamos at the same time as people were dying and struggling in Hiroshima.”  

It’s easy to be judgmental from a distance, I think, but it’s a good exercise in empathy to put yourself in both sets of shoes (The Making of the Atomic Bomb takes good care of the Japanese side of that equation.)

Page 14, on the scientific method, by analogy to trying to figure out the rules of chess by watching the board.  Omitting the analogy, here’s the punchline that bears some thought:

the thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that’s the most interesting, the part that doesn’t go according to what you expected […] [the laws] sometimes look positive, they keep on working and all of a sudden some little gimmick shows that they’re wrong and then we have to investigate the conditions under which [the exception occurred], and gradually learn the new rule that explains it more deeply.”  

Cross-reference the previous note as well as probabilistic thinking and  overconfidence and confirmation bias; the takeaway here is that you have to be looking out for those “exceptions” or changes in the environment that invalidate previous thinking, rather than just keep on keepin’ on…

Page 18, on inversion to solve a problem, as well as precision vs. accuracy:

“I spent a few years trying to invent mathematical things that would permit me to solve the equations, but I didn’t get anywhere, and then I decided that […] I must first understand more or less how the answer probably looks.  […] I had to get a qualitative idea of how the phenomenon works before I could get a good quantitative idea.  In other words, people didn’t even understand roughly how it worked, and so I’ve been working on […] understanding roughly how it works, not quantitatively yet, with the hope that in the future that rough understanding can be refined into a precise mathematical tool.”  

This is what I was referencing in terms of Feynman’s thought process; it’s evident throughout the book, but this is one of the more quotable examples.

Page 19: to do physics, Feynman needed “solid time to think” without interruptions that would cause him to lose half his train of thought.  So he foisted off administrative/teaching responsibilities on others.  S

ee also Cal Newport’s Deep Work ( DpWk review + notes), which quotes Feynman on this – huge frictional costs of multitasking.  See the human memory mental model.

Pages 20 – 22: Feynman discusses how it’s hard to teach different people who need different hooks into the subject; he tries to be broad enough to give everyone a hook… he also discusses how the same teaching techniques that delighted his son fell on deaf ears when it came to his daughter.  Trait adaptivity / context dependency.

Page 22: as he discusses more extensively in the Cargo Cult Science commencement speech, having the trappings or symbols of scientific expertise doesn’t necessarily result in scientific expertise.   Product vs. packaging.

Page 24: probably my favorite quote from the entire book.  on probabilistic thinking and scientific thinking, among other things:

“I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing.  I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.  I have approximate answers and possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean.  […] I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things […] it doesn’t frighten me.”  

So many concepts here: confirmation biasprecision vs. accuracy80/20utility, and of course, ideology.  (The context here was religion and the “big questions” – Feynman addresses this at more length in the final part of the book, although I didn’t read it the second time around.)

Page 31: In discussing parallel computing (and remember, this was decades before multithreading and multicore processors were commonplace even at a consumer scale, as they are today) – Feynman notes that running programs written for old computers on newer parallel architecture is basically impossible; it’s actually much easier to start from scratch.

Of course, however, lots of organizations have big investments in software code running on those old machines, causing “considerable resistance.”  It’s a nice example of many things – local vs. global optimization, for example; this is literally in some senses comparable to Clayton Christensen’s “The Innovator’s Dilemma” InD review + notes).

Page 37: further discussing the funny behavior of transistors as they approach quantum scale, he delivers a quotable one-liner (well, two-liner):

“You cannot expect old designs to work in new circumstances.  But new designs can work in new circumstances.”

Again, trait adaptivity.  Mirrors Henry Petroski in “ To Engineer is Human ( TEiH review + notes).  And a little Howard Roark for good measure.

Page 48: nice reference to the fact that computers (at the time) could do a lot of things faster, but still couldn’t recognize a face well; reminded me of (much more recently) how much trouble computers had at doing something like recognizing a cat (which most toddlers can do with relative ease.)  That has since changed, and it’s a topic I’d like to bookmark to read more about…

Page 58: this chapter (Los Alamos From Below) is really good to read right after completing The Making of the Atomic Bomb.  Anyway, two fun things on this page: first, Feynman describes Oppenheimer as

“very patient with everybody; he paid attention to everybody’s problems.  He worried about my wife, who had TB, and whether there would be a hospital out there and everything […] he was such a wonderful man.”  

Oppenheimer, in “ The Making of the Atomic Bomb” TMAB review + notes), is consistently described as having unusual “human” leadership elements for a physicist.   Empathy.

Second, a fun example of inversion and n-order impacts: everyone was advised not to buy a ticket from Princeton to Albuquerque because it would look suspicious, so figuring that everyone else would avoid the station, Feynman actually went there… reminded me, for some reason, of the guess two-thirds-of-the-average problem discussed by Thaler in Misbehaving.

Pages 70 – 71: the famous lock-picking story (one of several).

Pages 71 – 78, pages 82 – 83: some useful real-life examples of why telling people “why” is important to get them to do the right thing… and Feynman averting disaster by being willing to ask a stupid question.  Reason-respecting tendency.

Page 79 – 80: Feynman had the bright idea of applying mass-production techniques to calculations, which sped things up considerably.  Taking an idea from one discipline (manufacturing) and bringing it to another (research)…

Page 81: a problem that is still the case 75 years later: “the disease with computers is you play with them.  They are so wonderful.”  Yup… this fits somewhere (novelty-seeking?) but I’m not sure where yet.

Pages 87-88: on the importance of not worrying too much about authority (see also Kapitza’s club on pages 164 – 165 of The Making of the Atomic Bomb)

Pages 88-89: more of historical interest than anything else, Feynman was the onloy person to see the Trinity Test with the naked eye (through a car window)

Page 91: Feynman once again references (though not nearly as extensively) the discussion from pages 9-10 about getting into the project for the right reasons, then never reevaluating those reasons as circumstances changed

Pages 93 – 96: some fun stories about safecracking, which are more about human psychology than anything else… even when Feynman knew everyone’s combinations, he claimed to need a screwdriver and 20 minutes so people wouldn’t get the feeling it was too easy!

Page 98: Feynman believes (and mind you, this was before Trump on the right and social justice warriors on the left) that one of the greatest dangers to modern society is “the possible resurgence and expansion of the ideas of thought control.”

Page 104: returning to the earlier discussion of doubt and uncertainty + probabilistic thinking and intellectual humility (see notes from page 24 above), Feynman notes

“The question of doubt and uncertainty is what is necessary to begin; for if you already know the answer, there is no need to gather any evidence about it.”  

(Note the nuance here; it may appear paradoxical wrt what he says on page 18, but they’re different.)  

Additionally, Feynman notes on rationality that “[it is] very vital to put together ideas to try to enforce a logical consistency among the various things that you know.” .

Pages 106 – 107: sort of returning to the “beauty of a flower” discussion that opens the book, Feynman advocates for science and rationality improving rather than detracting from things.  Presupposing that things such as astrology have any sort of validity (Feynman obviously didn’t believe this), he reasoned that they should be studied to further enhance their effectiveness:

“If it is true then maybe we can find out if the stars do influence life; that we could make the system more powerful by investigating statistically, scientifically judging the evidence objectively, more carefully.”  

He goes on to suggest A/B testing with faith healing.

Pages 108 – 109: discussing advertising, Feynman notes that what he describes as “immoral” bias or intent to persuade in presenting ideas is:

 so extensive that one gets used to it in ordinary life, that you do not appreciate that it is a bad thing.”  

Of course, this was decades before Fox News, MSNBC, Buzzfeed, and social-media driven echo chambers…

Pages 112 – 115: Feynman returns to the idea of the importance of leaving room for doubt, and thinking probabilistically rather than absolutely.  He views the English approach of “muddling through” as:

“the most scientific way of progressing.”  

Page 119: this is one of those bits I was referencing where there’s no specific conceptual takeaway, but it’s interesting to see how Feynman’s mind works.  In response to answering the hypothetical question of whether the entire Encyclopedia Brittanica could be engraved on the head of a pin, he breaks it down into various elements – how many atoms are on the head of a pin, etc.  

Page 145: similar to the above, the discussion of the implications of radioactive tracing isn’t hugely important, but Feynman’s way of thinking about it and relating it to other concepts is: given that the brain recycles half of its phosphorus every two weeks, Feynman wryly notes that: 

“what is this mind, what are these atoms with consciousness?  Last week’s potatoes!  That is what now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago – a mind which has long ago been replaced.”  

Perhaps a nice reminder to stop and zoom out from time to time.

Page 147: Feynman notes something I’ve thought about a lot: that scientific progress and increasing wealth haven’t, in some sense, resulted in quite as much utopia as people would have imagined…

Page 152: Earlier, I noted that Feynman, like Oppenheimer, had the unusual ability (for an obviously capable, highly intelligent and analytical physicist) to effectively communicate with laypeople and understand other people.  

I thought there was a subtle, but nice example on this page, of him translating a quasi-meaningless statistic (a failure rate of 1 in 100,000) to something that is easy for the average person to wrap their brain around (“1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one.)  

1 in 100,000 is hard to intuitively understand, but it’s pretty easy to see overconfidence in the idea that we’ll launch a shuttle into space every day for 300 years and only have one mishap.

Pages 155 – 157: an important discussion of process vs. outcome: NASA errantly based its estimates of future success on the fact that previous missions had gone well; they also ignored some warning signs like erosion of flight seals, taking an “all’s well that ends well” approach.

Feynman notes that they misutilized the “ safety factor” concept (which we commonly call margin of safety).  NASA argued that because the rings only eroded one-third of the way, there was asafety factor because nothing catastrophic happened if they broke entirely; Feynman noted contrarily that there was “no safety factor at all because the O-rings “were not designed to erode” under normal operating conditions – so it was “a clue that something was wrong.”  He goes on to note that empirical curve fitting that ignored outliers was part of the problem.

A crude analogy I came up with to cement the point in my mind: if you’re chopping vegetables and you cut a third of the way through your finger, you don’t have a safety factor of 2x because you didn’t chop your finger off.  Cuts to your finger indicate an unsafe vegetable-chopping process.

Pages 166 – 167: some nice thoughts on legacy systems and good verification protocols

Pages 174 – 175: an interesting approach to teaching patterns/mathematics to toddlers…

Pages 179 – 180: similar to (but slightly different from) the discussion of birds and their names, Feynman rails against textbooks that focus on definitions rather than meanings.  

Pages 184 – 185: Feynman discussing culture and passing knowledge down, which is generally hugely adaptive but has one:

 “disease in it.  It was possible to pass on mistaken ideas.  It was possible to pass on ideas which were not profitable for the race.  The race has ideas, but they are not necessarily profitable.”  

In this case, we have to return to the original method of learning from experience.

Page 195: on not taking yourself too seriously and pompously, and on the uneven distribution of wisdom/progress

Page 210: back to the idea of doubt and objectivity.  It’s this type of integrity, this kind of care not to fool yourself…”

Page 211: GREAT example of anchoring.  One scientist made a mistake in calculating a constant (the viscosity of air), and yet the dot-plot of future scientists’ estimates marched up and to the right from there, slowly, before settling on the correct value.

“When [scientists] got a number that was too high above Millikan’s, they thought something must be wrong – and they would look for and find a reason […] when they got a number closer to Millikan’s value, they didn’t look so hard.  And so they eliminated the numbers that were too far off, and did other things like that.”

Pages 214 – 215: on psychology experiments, not looking far enough for the right answer – multicausality and disaggregation.

 

Last Read: February 2018

Number of Times Read: 2

 

Review Date: February 2018

Notes Date: February 2018