Thursday, July 05, 2007

Understanding Something Is More Than Just Knowing Fancy Words

An anecdote by Richard Feynman:

For example, there was a book that started out with four pictures: first there was a windup toy; then there was an automobile; then there was a boy riding a bicycle; then there was something else. And underneath each picture it said, "What makes it go?"

I thought, "I know what it is: They're going to talk about mechanics, how the springs work inside the toy; about chemistry, how the engine of the automobile works; and biology, about how the muscles work."

It was the kind of thing my father would have talked about: "What makes it go? Everything goes because the sun is shining." And then we would have fun discussing it:

"No, the toy goes because the spring is wound up," I would say. "How did the spring get wound up?" he would ask.

"I wound it up."

"And how did you get moving?"

"From eating."

"And food grows only because the sun is shining. So it's because the sun is shining that all these things are moving." That would get the concept across that motion is simply the transformation of the sun's power.

I turned the page. The answer was, for the wind-up toy, "Energy makes it go." And for the boy on the bicycle, "Energy makes it go." For everything, "Energy makes it go."

Now that doesn't mean anything. Suppose it's "Wakalixes." That's the general principle: "Wakalixes makes it go." There's no knowledge coming in. The child doesn't learn anything; it's just a word!

What they should have done is to look at the wind-up toy, see that there are springs inside, learn about springs, learn about wheels, and never mind "energy." Later on, when the children know something about how the toy actually works, they can discuss the more general principles of energy.

So, when you try to understand how something works or comes to be, and some authority say to you it's because of X, you better know how X operates.

If you haven't read a book called "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman", you should really read it at least once in your life. It contains a lot of fun adventures by the great scientist Richard Feynman.

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