The Feynman Story

There are a million Feynman stories of course. But the one that really stands out for me, especially now, is his story of the star temperatures, which appears in “Surely you’re joking, Mr. Feynman!”. 

I was giving a series of freshman physics lectures at that time [in the early 60s], and after one of them, Tom Harvey, who assisted me in putting on the demonstrations, said, “You oughta see what’s happening to mathematics in schoolbooks! My daughter comes home with a lot of crazy stuff!”

I didn’t pay much attention to what he said.

But the next day I got a telephone call from a pretty famous lawyer here in Pasadena, Mr. Norris, who was at that time on the State Board of Education. He asked me if I would serve on the State Curriculum Commission, which had to choose the new schoolbooks for the state of California. You see, the state had a law that all of the schoolbooks used by all of the kids in all of the public schools have to be chosen by the State Board of Education, so they have a committee to look over the books and to give them advice on which books to take.

It happened that a lot of the books were on a new method of teaching arithmetic that they called “new math,” and since usually the only people to look at the books were schoolteachers or administrators in education, they thought it would be a good idea to have somebody who uses mathematics scientifically, who knows what the end product is and what we’re trying to teach it for, to help in the evaluation of the schoolbooks.

I must have had, by this time, a guilty feeling about not cooperating with the government, because I agreed to get on this committee.

Immediately I began getting letters and telephone calls from book publishers. They said things like, “We’re very glad to hear you’re on the committee because we really wanted a scientific guy . . . and “It’s wonderful to have a scientist on the committee, because our books are scientifically oriented . . .”

But they also said things like, “We’d like to explain to you what our book is about . . .”and “We’ll be very glad to help you in any way we can to judge our books . . .”

That seemed to me kind of crazy. I’m an objective scientist, and it seemed to me that since the only thing the kids in school are going to get is the books (and the teachers get the teacher’s manual, which I would also get), any extra explanation from the company was a distortion. So I didn’t want to speak to any of the publishers and always replied, “You don’t have to explain; I’m sure the books will speak for themselves.”

I represented a certain district, which comprised most of the Los Angeles area except for the city of Los Angeles, which was represented by a very nice lady from the L.A. school system named Mrs. Whitehouse. Mr. Norris suggested that I meet her and find out what the committee did and how it worked.

Mrs. Whitehouse started out telling me about the stuff they were going to talk about in the next meeting (they had already had one meeting; I was appointed late). “They’re going to talk about the counting numbers.” I didn’t know what that was, but it turned out they were what I used to call integers. They had different names for everything, so I had a lot of trouble right from the start.

She told me how the members of the commission normally rated the new schoolbooks. They would get a relatively large number of copies of each book and would give them to various teachers and administrators in their district. Then they would get reports back on what these people thought about the books. Since I didn’t know a lot of teachers or administrators, and since I felt that I could, by reading the books myself, make up my mind as to how they looked to me, I chose to read all the books myself. (There were some people in my district who had expected to look at the books and wanted a chance to give their opinion. Mrs. Whitehouse offered to put their reports in with hers so they would feel better and I wouldn’t have to worry about their complaints. They were satisfied, and I didn’t get much trouble.)

A few days later a guy from the book depository called me up and said, “We’re ready to send you the books, Mr. Feynman; there are three hundred pounds.”

I was overwhelmed.

“It’s all right, Mr. Feynman; we’ll get someone to help you read them.”

I couldn’t figure out how you do that: you either read them or you don’t read them. I had a special bookshelf put in my study downstairs (the books took up seventeen feet), and began reading all the books that were going to be discussed in the next meeting. We were going to start out with the elementary schoolbooks.

It was a pretty big job, and I worked all the time at it down in the basement. My wife says that during this period it was like living over a volcano. It would be quiet for a while, but then all of a sudden, “BLLLLLOOOOOOWWWWW!!!!”–there would be a big explosion from the “volcano” below. The reason was that the books were so lousy. They were false. They were hurried. They would try to be rigorous, but they would use examples (like automobiles in the street for “sets”) which were almost OK, but in which there were always some subtleties. The definitions weren’t accurate. Everything was a little bit ambiguous–they weren’t smart enough to understand what was meant by “rigor.” They were faking it. They were teaching something they didn’t understand, and which was, in fact, useless, at that time, for the child.

I understood what they were trying to do. Many people thought we were behind the Russians after Sputnik, and some mathematicians were asked to give advice on how to teach math by using some of the rather interesting modern concepts of mathematics. The purpose was to enhance mathematics for the children who found it dull.

I’ll give you an example: They would talk about different bases of numbers–five, six, and so on–to show the possibilities. That would be interesting for a kid who could understand base ten–something to entertain his mind. But what they had turned it into, in these books, was that every child had to learn another base! And then the usual horror would come: “Translate these numbers, which are written in base seven, to base five.” Translating from one base to another is an utterly useless thing. If you can do it, maybe it’s entertaining; if you can’t do it, forget it. There’s no point to it.

Anyhow, I’m looking at all these books, all these books, and none of them has said anything about using arithmetic in science. If there are any examples on the use of arithmetic at all (most of the time it’s this abstract new modern nonsense), they are about things like buying stamps.

Finally I come to a book that says, “Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars.” I turn the page, and it says, “Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . .” –so far, so good. It continues: “Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number).” There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It’s vaguely right–but already, trouble! That’s the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don’t quite understand what they’re talking about, I cannot understand. I don’t know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY!

Anyway, I’m happy with this book, because it’s the first example of applying arithmetic to science. I’m a bit unhappy when I read about the stars’ temperatures, but I’m not very unhappy because it’s more or less right–it’s just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, “John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?”–and I would explode in horror.

My wife would talk about the volcano downstairs. That’s only an example: it was perpetually like that. Perpetual absurdity! There’s no purpose whatsoever in adding the temperature of two stars. Nobody ever does that except, maybe, to then take the average temperature of the stars, but not to find out the total temperature of all the stars! It was awful! All it was was a game to get you to add, and they didn’t understand what they were talking about. It was like reading sentences with a few typographical errors, and then suddenly a whole sentence is written backwards. The mathematics was like that. Just hopeless!

We hope you enjoyed the interlude. Now, back to NAPLAN.

8 Replies to “The Feynman Story”

  1. Here’s a story about inanity in my math teaching career. The first female director of a Juvenile Court School in California was an authoritarian. She wanted to have a minimal competency test adopted to supposedly help students with basics, but really to show gains, bogus or not, that would bring money from a grant into the school coffers. She hired a Ph.D at an exorbitant price to write a 48 item math test. As a teacher, I was supposed to approve the test without making any suggestions for change. But when I saw the three subtraction problems, they were all of medium difficulty. So I suggested that there be instead an easy, a medium, and a difficult problem. All of the hired minions were incredulous that I even spoke. One said, “It’s a minimal competency test!” They all started laughing at me. I got frustrated and raised my voice and said, “They’re not supposed to be minimally competent in subtraction. They’re supposed to be very competent in subtraction to be minimally competent in society!” They laughed at this too. Luckily, the other Jew in the room besides me, another Ph.D, was among the hired minions, and he said I was making some sense. So I won the argument but cemented my reputation as a troublemaker. The pre-test was given all at once, but the post-tests were retaken three items at a time. Most of the questions were multiple choice, so a student could retake the test without any required time delay and just try different answers each time. That’s how “gains” were documented and the grant money kept rolling in.

    1. The director, as so many, outwits positivism, the belief that everything can be measured in a meaningful way. This belief always falls short of expectations. While nobody says so, everybody senses it, and, in particular in positions of authority, public trust, to one’s own good measure. This is colloquially called Goodhart’s law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

  2. When my daughter was 17 she was living in Tennessee and found just about every aspect of life at the local high school so objectionable that she decided to study her final year by distance instead. I’m not sure which mob she went with, but she would occasionally send me some problem or other, asking for help. Some of the problems she sent were beyond inane, but also absurd in a similar way that which Feynman describes.
    By far the best example – and I remember this verbatim because it was so idiotic – was a question which began “The scale on a map is 1 metre = 1 kilometre …”

    Brings to mind (in the opposite direction) the battlefield map scene in Blackadder Goes Forth.

  3. You’ve given one of the the ‘tragic’ parts of the anecdote, which is the whole point of the blog. I’d like to add the funniest part of the anecdote (which I also think makes a good point. A point that could shed light on the proof reading of all sorts of stuff):

    “We came to a certain book, part of a set of three supplementary books published by the same company, and they asked me what I thought about it. I said, “The book depository didn’t send me that book, but the other two were nice.” Someone tried repeating the question: “What do you think about that book?” “I said they didn’t send me that one, so I don’t have any judgment on it.” The man from the book depository was there, and he said, “Excuse me; I can explain that. I didn’t send it to you because that book hadn’t been completed yet. There’s a rule that you have to have every entry in by a certain time, and the publisher was a few days late with it. So it was sent to us with just the covers, and it’s blank in between. The company sent a note excusing themselves and hoping they could have their set of three books considered, even though the third one would be late.” It turned out that the blank book had a rating by some of the other members! They couldn’t believe it was blank, because they had a rating. In fact, the rating for the missing book was a little bit higher than for the two others. The fact that there was nothing in the book had nothing to do with the rating.”

    PS – It is very easy to find a link to a pdf copy this book (not the blank book!)

  4. I have a few Feynman books sitting behind me, but seem to have misplaced “Surely you’re joking”…. Books seemed so unobtainable on my PhD stipend all that time ago… so I love how so much is available nowadays – especially the Feynman Lectures: https://www.feynmanlectures.caltech.edu/

    Also Freakonomics have done a nice series on Feynman recently (although I’ve only listened to half of it so far) https://freakonomics.com/the-curious-brilliant-vanishing-mr-feynman/

  5. I am interested in how IQ manifests in behavior. One of the ways is in the split in quantitative vs verbal scores on the SAT and GRE. IQ correlates with the sum of the scores. People in STEM graduate programs have, percentile wise, much higher quant scores while the arts and humanities are the reverse. The lowest sum or IQ scores go to people in education and social work. The highest sum scores go to mathematics and physics but philosophy is third highest in sum total but also highest in verbal scores. Feynman was a prime example of the split. His competency in math was astounding. However, his understanding of people was moronic. He was a classic nerd in the style if Sheldon Cooper. The people who go into k12 education are often the first in their family to graduate from college. They are very dull and dimwitted all around. They have the lowest IQs of all college graduates. The people who get PhDs in psychology and sociology are not a hell of a lot better. All of what I say here can be quickly verified by reading table 4 of the GRE Guide to Scores. There is a fairly large literature regarding the split in quant vs verbal scores. Richard Feynman is well known for his disdain for philosophy and his so called poetry strains the definition of poetaster. I see the above story as humorously pathetic where a total moron in social intelligence attacks a group of people who are barely above average intelligence. In terms of quant scores I am at the 73rd percentile among physics majors but my verbal scores put me at the 91st percentile among philosophy majors. I can easily claim to have a foot on both sides of the two cultures referred to by C. P. Snow.

    1. Thanks, Charles. I appreciate the point. I have read enough of and about Feynman to feel that I really don’t like the guy. He is obviously incredibly smart, with great (self-promoting) stories, but his arrogance and lack of empathy seems pretty clear. But so what? Nonsense is still nonsense, even if it is produced by well-meaning nitwits.

      It is big-noting to steer your comment on Feynman to now talk about myself, but I think it is relevant.

      I am often attacked, almost always behind my back, for my “nasty” and “aggressive” blog. But I didn’t start out this way. Twenty years ago I was a much gentler advocate for maths ed reform. But no one listened. We all got along, they laughed at my jokes and I was invited far and wide. But they didn’t listen: they continued with the same systemic mediocrity and incompetence. So, eventually, I said “fuck it” and I went full force on the thoroughly idiotic, incestuous, incompetent and arrogant Australian maths ed industry. I am content with my decision.

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