Learning about the world

From left: Richard Feynman, Mike Brown and Albert Einstein. Photos from WikiMedia Commons.

From left: Richard Feynman, Mike Brown and Albert Einstein. Photos from WikiMedia Commons.

It's been an interesting year for me. Mostly because I'm learning stuff again. Not going to school, doing stuff in a structured way. I don't particularly have the patience for that anymore. I have what I feel I need in the way of credentials. With a little better preparation, I could have been in that position 12 years ago, but hey, live and learn, right? As long as we learn from it, I guess.

As you may have noticed from that list over on the right, I've read a lot this year, and it's not all fluff. [Some of it is, for sure, but one needs entertainment and humor, too, right?]

I tend to notice details, and I'm a reasonably curious human being. While you're noticing the pile of garbage on the ground, I'm seeing a piece of string in the pile and wanting to know what it's attached to. And while you want to know why this pile of garbage is on the ground, I want to know how it's useful to me.

That's where I'm a bit different, I guess. It's not a judgment; that's just how I'm wired. And I know that some of you don't care why the pile of garbage is on the ground, you just want it cleaned up.


One of the great things about the universe we live in is that much of it has already been discovered and people have been writing manuals on it for millennia. Sure, we discover new things and learn that the old manuals have something fundamentally wrong with them – that doesn't make them any less interesting, and we could certainly learn something from the progression of thought (it will help our own thought progress as well).

Re-reading my takeaways from Darwin's Origin of Species, I'm reminded that simply observing is a great big step in learning. Eventually you're going to get curious and ask about something.

And when you do, you don't have to start from scratch. Sure, get the basic foundations, but then you don't have to discover something for everybody else. Someone's most likely already done that, and you can learn for you. Yeah, be selfish about it.

Reading Einstein's Relativity was not really eye-opening. We kind of understand the theory, even when we're little kids. I'm sitting in a coffee shop while I'm writing this, and cars are driving by. They are moving relative to me and to my chair. My chair and I are moving relative to the cars. I am not moving relative to my chair. Einstein showed us how to measure that and figured out what it meant as things got smaller and smaller and faster and faster. That's interesting to me, though, again, not eye-opening.

I did, however, enjoy some of Einstein's humor. At the beginning of the book, he was us measuring the distance to a cloud by building a rod from the ground to the cloud and then measuring the rod (I'm guessing other translations probably have us taking standard-size rods and counting how many of them we stack to get to the cloud). Later, he has someone suspended in a chest floating through space. This is totally "3 Stooges" physics, and you know it's Shemp going up in that chest, but Curly putting the finishing touches on the rod before the thing topples over.

In case you missed it a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about Richard Feynman, who was so curious about the way things worked that when he felt his research stagnating, he went out and watched students play on the quad. A Frisbee got him working again (this was one of the guys who helped invent the atomic bomb – something he did not because he wanted to vanquish the enemy, but more because it was a physics problem he wanted to solve).

The other guy in that photo montage up at the top of this post is Mike Brown. He had Pluto declassified as a planet. He didn't set out to ruin Pluto. Rather, he set out to find another planet and instead found something that was bigger than Pluto but clearly not a planet. And he did this because he was curious about space. He had been since he walked out his door as a child and looked up.

You don't know everything. Go out there and learn about something you're interested in. Enjoy marketing? Learn about some of the psychology behind it, rather than just about what works. Enjoy coffee? Find out what roasting style you like best, and why. Enjoy beer or wine? Take the time to make your own, see what the process is like. Make sure you make some bad stuff, too – you want to know what you did wrong, as well.

Reading Richard Feynman: On curiosity, learning and selfishness

Richard Feynman was a problem-solver. He got to be a problem solver by tinkering, and he tinkered because he was curious. Moreover, his parents encouraged his curiosity.

In that video up there (it's well worth 50 minutes of your time, by the way), he discusses learning about inertia. He noticed the funny way a ball rolled around in a wagon, and he asked his father about it. His father told him to watch again, that the ball actually behaved differently from how he thought, and then he explained why.

His father taught him the value of learning, as opposed to knowing.

With this, as Feynman relates in his memoir Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!, he was running around his neighborhood repairing radios when he was a young boy. He found them interesting, he played with them, and when someone had a broken radio he would pace around their living room trying thinking about how to fix it, and then he'd fix it.

People were astonished.

Now, you probably know Feynman's name because he was part of the Manhattan Project. And he won a Nobel Prize (something he didn't want because of the extra attention, but upon learning that it would be more of a hassle to turn it down, he accepted it). And he taught for a long time. Or you just watch too much "Big Bang Theory."

What strikes me about Feynman is his curiosity, and his willingness to follow that curiosity. Here's a guy who wanted to know how radios worked, so he took them apart and played with the pieces.

Later in life, he wanted to learn how to draw, so he took a class and wound up having a gallery show.

He thought it would be fun to learn the drums, go to Brazil and play at Carnival. So he did.

While he enjoyed teaching, it sometimes led him to get stuck in his own work. One time, he went out on the quad and saw some students throwing around a disk (a Frisbee, though there weren't Frisbees yet). He noticed it wobbled, soared and curved. He went and did some calculations, and it helped in his work on subatomic particles.

There's that tinkerer again.

Another thing that strikes me about Feynman can only really be described as selfishness. If he didn't want the hassle of a committee position, he didn't take it. If he didn't want to go to a party, he didn't go. We only have so much time, why not have fun with it?

And have fun he did: He was a prankster as a college student, leaving tips under full glasses of water turned upside-down, stealing doors from rooms in his fraternity. He writes that he used to do some of his work at a strip club. Nobody bothered him, he didn't bother anybody, and the owner would send over a free soda every night.

Take three action items from Feynman, then.

(1) Leave your house and find something you know nothing about. Leave your house, because if the thing is in your house, you've been ignoring it long enough that it won't sustain your interest for very long. It could be coffee roasting, snowblowers, the physics of how chalk sticks to a board – anything. Now, learn all about it. This will take you some time. If you figured it out in an hour, you didn't get the point.

Now, report on it. If you have a blog, post it there. If you don't, use my comments section. If you think your story's absolutely awesome and you don't have a blog, email me and maybe we'll do a guest post here.

Mine: I've begun home-brewing beer, just this past weekend. I've been a beer fan since – well, since I was 4 and I was already only drinking my dad's brand – and over the past few years I've become a fan of craft brews. So I'm going to start making my own. I sort of expect that the first batch will fail. It's not fermenting as quickly as expected, and while I know a scotch ale is more malty than hoppy and has a low-ish ABV, I think we might be looking at something a little too sweet and flat. The second batch will be better because I'll work with it a little differently. Beyond that, I'll start experimenting with flavors and probably fail a few times. Either way, it's something new – and it's committing to a process (really, it takes at least three weeks before it's drinkable).

(2) Say no to something. Make it something you really don't want to do but that society dictates you should do. Feynman tried to turn down the Nobel prize. When he finally accepted it, he managed to say no to a banquet in his honor. When Woody Allen won an Oscar for "Annie Hall," he was in Manhattan playing his clarinet at a weekly gig. He snuck out the back door, unplugged the phone and read about it in the paper the next day. He said no to sitting around uncomfortably on the other side of the country waiting to see if his name would be called.

Mine: I'm not sure on this one, honestly. I'm in the fortunate situation that I get to choose just about all my interactions. There's the give-and-take of a relationship, but other than that, you pretty much have to come ring my doorbell (and hope I answer) to get me to make an unplanned social interaction.

(3) Go do something at a place it's not the norm to do it. I used to go to bars, sit in a crowded spot and read. Since I was typically reading something interesting, it led me to interesting conversations with interesting people. I met someone who described himself as a freelance lawyer while I was reading Barry Glassner's The Culture of Fear at Al's Wine & Whiskey in downtown Syracuse. That was one interesting dude. I wound up giving him the book when I was done.

Another time I was reading the Sunday New York Times at a now-defunct chain coffee shop on the north side (I had friends who worked behind the counter, making the coffee, er, awfully affordable) when someone came up and admonished me from getting all my news from such a liberal source. Until I pulled out a Wall Street Journal. No more political discussions over newspapers for me, thanks.

Mine: Now that school's back in session and the public playgrounds are free of children during the day, I'll do some playground workouts. [Adult males are generally discouraged from hanging out on playgrounds when they don't have kids; just sayin'.] There are lots of opportunities to climb and do bodyweight exercises, and plenty of opportunity for people walking or driving by to stare. It also gives me the chance to walk with the dog and bring him to the "gym."