Today is Feynman’s 100th birthday. I got to know him from one of his famous books, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. Since then Dr. Feynman became one of the persons that I admire the most. His books made a profound impact on my career as well as on my life. He was never afraid of questioning the authority. He was the type of person who is curious about nearly everything and never afraid of asking questions.
I grew up in a distant small town in China where at that time (and even today) most of us were taught to “behave well”: in the class, we had to listen to what the teacher said; at home, we should not doubt what our parents told us. Even when we grew up to be an adult, we had to obey the will of the old generation: we had to get married and bear children regardless of what our choice truly was. In the old but still prevailing Chinese tradition, women should be the subordinate and the weak, man must be the dominant role in the family or even in the workplace. There was such a clear cut between the genders: one to lead the other has to follow. Thousand years have passed, and we are still the same old type: we are just the extended edition of our last generation and never think why we should keep doing the same. Or we simply can’t, because even though when we questioned why we should do so we got no answer but just to comply.
Feynman taught me that “you have no responsibility to live up to what other people think you ought to accomplish. I have no responsibility to be like they expect me to be. It’s their mistake, not my failing.”
When I thought of my future life, Feynman taught me: “Nobody ever figures out what life is all about, and it doesn’t matter. Explore the world. Nearly everything is really interesting if you go into it deeply enough. Work as hard and as much as you want to on the things you like to do the best. Don’t think about what you want to be, but what you want to do. Keep up some kind of a minimum with other things so that society doesn’t stop you from doing anything at all.”
Regarding the relation of art and science, Feynman told me a story: “I have a friend who’s an artist and has sometimes taken a view which I don’t agree with very well. He’ll hold up a flower and say ‘look how beautiful it is,’ and I’ll agree. Then he says ‘I as an artist can see how beautiful this is but you as a scientist take this all apart and it becomes a dull thing,’ and I think that he’s kind of nutty. First of all, the beauty that he sees is available to other people and to me too, I believe. Although I may not be quite as refined aesthetically as he is … I can appreciate the beauty of a flower. At the same time, I see much more about the flower than he sees. I could imagine the cells in there, the complicated actions inside, which also have a beauty. I mean it’s not just beauty at this dimension, at one centimeter; there’s also beauty at smaller dimensions, the inner structure, also the processes. The fact that the colors in the flower evolved in order to attract insects to pollinate it is interesting; it means that insects can see the color. It adds a question: does this aesthetic sense also exist in the lower forms? Why is it aesthetic? All kinds of interesting questions which the science knowledge only adds to the excitement, the mystery and the awe of a flower. It only adds. I don’t understand how it subtracts.”
I enjoy doing science as my career, but in the meantime, I am so much fond of the art. They are never on the two opposite sides, but instead, more like the two eyes of a person: with both ones, we get a full perspective of things.
Dr. Feynman taught me so many things in my life. To me he is like a hermit who retired deep into the mountains so that I never saw him in real life but his voices spread so out loud into the world that each of us in the society can hear and find our inner peace through his guidance.
Whenever I make decisions, or learn new things, or go somewhere I have never gone before, I remember his words.
-‘I don’t feel frightened not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell.’
-‘Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman.’
-No. When you start to know something, and you keep going deeper to unveil more of it, you will soon discover ‘the pleasure of finding things out.’ Afterall, ‘I… a universe of atoms, an atom in the universe’. So ‘what do you care what other people think?’
Happy birthday, Mr. Feynman!