Richard P. Feynman

Richard P. Feynman

Richard P. Feynman on wonder in the universe

…he learns about the size of the universe. The size of the universe is very impressive, with us on a tiny particle that whirls around the sun. That’s one sun among a hundred thousand million suns in this galaxy, itself among a billion galaxies. And again, he learns about the close biological relationship of man to the animals and of one form of life to another and that man is a latecomer in a long and vast, evolving drama. Can the rest be just a scaffolding for His creation? And yet again there are the atoms, of which all appears to be constructed following immutable laws. Nothing can escape it. The stars are made of the same stuff—but in some such complexity as to mysteriously appear alive.

It is such a great adventure to contemplate the universe, beyond man, to contemplate what it would be like without man, as it was in a great part of its long history and as it is in a great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty of matter are fully appreciated, to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to view life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare, and very exciting. It usually ends in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing—atoms with curiosity—that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders. Well, these scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it is all arranged as a stage for God to watch man’s struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.
Richard P. Feynman in his essay “The Uncertainty of Values”. Available in The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist, (Reading, Massachusetts: Perseus Books, 1998), p. 38-9.

Richard P. Feynman on watching himself fall asleep and dream

Now to the philosophy class. The course was taught by an old bearded professor named Robinson, who always mumbled. I would go to the class, and he would mumble along, and I couldn’t understand a thing. The other people in the class seemed to understand him better, but they didn’t seem to pay any attention. I happened to have a small drill, about one-sixteenth-inch, and to pass the time in that class, I would twist it between my fingers and drill holes in the sole of my shoe, week after week.

Finally one day at the end of class, Professor Robinson went “wugga mugga mugga wugga wugga…” and everybody got excited! They were all talking to each other and discussing, so I figured he’d said something interesting, thank God! I wondered what it was?

I asked somebody, and they said, “We have to write a theme, and hand it in in four weeks.”

“A theme on what?”

“On what he’s been talking about all year.”

I was stuck. The only thing that I had heard during that entire term that I could remember was a moment when there came this upwelling, “muggawuggastreamofconsciousnessmugga wugga,” and phoom!—it sank back into chaos.

This “stream of consciousness” reminded me of a problem my father had given to me many years before. He said, “Suppose some Martians were to come down to earth, and Martians never slept, but instead were perpetually active. Suppose they didn’t have this crazy phenomenon that we have, called sleep. So they ask you the question: ‘How does it feel to go to sleep? What happens when you go to sleep? Do your thoughts suddenly stop, or do they move less aanndd lleeessss rraaaaapppppiidddddllllllllyyyyyyyyyyyyyy? How does the mind actually turn off?'”

I got interested. Now I had to answer this question: How does the stream of consciousness end, when you go to sleep?

So every afternoon for the next four weeks I would work on my theme. I would pull down the shades in my room, turn off the lights, and go to sleep. And I’d watch what happened when I went to sleep.

Then at night, I’d go to sleep again, so I had two times each day when I could make observations—it was very good!

At first I noticed a lot of subsidiary things that had little to do with falling asleep. I noticed, for instance, that I did a lot of thinking by speaking to myself internally. I could also imagine things visually.

Then, when I was getting tired, I noticed that I could think of two things at once. I discovered this when I was talking internally to myself about something, and while I was doing this, I was idly imagining two ropes connected to the end of my bed, going through some pulleys, and winding around a turning cylinder, slowly lifting the bed. I wasn’t aware that I was imagining these ropes until I began to worry that one rope would catch on the other rope, and they wouldn’t wind up smoothly. But I said, internally, “Oh, the tension will take care of that,” and this interrupted the first thought I was having, and made me aware that I was thinking of two things at once.

I also noticed that as you go to sleep the ideas continue, but they become less and less logically interconnected. You don’t notice that they’re not logically connected until you ask yourself, “What made me think of that?” and you try to work your way back, and often you can’t remember what the hell did make you think of that!

So you get every illusion of logical connection, but the actual fact is that the thoughts become more and more cockeyed until they’re completely disjointed, and beyond that, you fall asleep.

After four weeks of sleeping all the time, I wrote my theme, and explained the observations I had made. At the end of the theme I pointed out that all of these observations were made while I was watching myself fall asleep, and I don’t really know what it’s like to fall asleep when I’m not watching myself. I concluded the theme with a little verse I made up, which pointed out this problem of introspection:

I wonder why. I wonder why.
I wonder why I wonder.
I wonder why I wonder why
I wonder why I wonder!

We hand in our themes, and the next time our class meets, the professor reads one of them: “Mum bum wugga mum bum…” I don’t know what that guy wrote either, but at the end of it, he goes:

Uh wugga wuh. Uh wugga wuh.
Uh wugga wugga wugga.
I wugga wuh uh wugga wuh
Uh wugga wugga wugga.

“Aha!” I say. “That’s my theme!” I honestly didn’t recognize it until the end.

After I had written the theme I continued to be curious, and I kept practicing this watching myself as I went to sleep. One night, while I was having a dream, I realized I was observing myself in the dream. I had gotten all the way down into the sleep itself!
Richard P. Feynman in “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”: adventures of a curious character, (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1997), p. 46. First published (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 1985).

Related Media: Other Themes

Richard P. Feynman on “Our Responsibility as Scientists”

We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. There are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions and pass them on. It is our responsibility to leave the men of the future a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make grave errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant; if we suppress all discussion, all criticism, saying, “This is it, boys, man is saved!” and thus doom man for a long time to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present imagination. It has been done so many times before.

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.
Richard P. Feynman in his paper “The Value of Science” (full text) presented at the National Academy of Sciences, November 2-4, 1955. Published in “Engineering and Science”, volume 19, December 3, 1955, p. 13-22. Reprinted in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The best short works of Richard P. Feynman, p. 149.

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"We are at the very beginning of time for the human race."