Living Lab Fourth Year Fellows

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  • Richard Feynman: A Curious Character, Creative Genius or Something Else Entirely…
  • #13601

    Prof. Karen Goodlad

    Please take a moment to comment on the following questions:

    Which chapter in Feynman’s “Surely Your Joking” did you find of greatest interest?
    Is there a connection between this chapter and General Education?


    Christopher Swift

    Hi Karen,

    Would you like us to reply here? Or are we preparing responses for our first meeting?

    Hope you’re enjoying the last few days of the break.



    Prof. Karen Goodlad

    Please respond here. In addition to the OpenLab discussion we will have a short discussion on the 31st.


    Patrick Corbett

    Chapter of Greatest Interest:

    For the most part, I found the chapters to be episodic, and not necessarily correlative to what was most interesting about the book. If I had to choose *one* chapter, it would be “An Offer You Must Refuse,” where Dr. Feynman commits to Cal-Tech for the final time (after being offered to go to Fermi Lab). It shows what I think is the best insight into his own internal compass, which is focused on not just doing physics, but sharing his passion for it.

    What I found to be most interesting about the book, beyond the anecdotes that structured the chapters, is that Dr. Feynman constantly challenges his own narrow understanding of relationships and other people. He refused to be a one-dimensional person, despite his own admitted tendency to want to ignore anything that didn’t fit into his own drives or understanding of the physical world.

    Connection to General Education:

    I probably chose a chapter that is less connected to General Education than others. How many of our students would dream of turning down enormously prestigious and lucrative job offers because they were afraid how these opportunities might impair their growth and perception of who they want to be. But, on the other hand, we depend on General Education to provide some opportunity for personal development, and (re)thinking our own situatedness in the world.


    Prof. Karen Goodlad

    It was Feynman’s explanation of his exploration that was most intriguing to me. Clearly he is an extraordinary person with great far reaching accomplishments, yet he expressed his unique fears of failing that eventually lead him to success in and out of the classroom. For instance, when he described his first thoughts on drawing in the chapter “But is it Art?” his past experiences made him uncertain that he could find success. His teacher encouraged him to try but then said “Of course you will need to work” (pg 261).

    His fear of trying to draw is represented over and over again in our classrooms when students are challenged to try something they have failed at in the past. It is our responsibility to our students to help them find the courage, patience and desire they must have to overcome their academic challenges and aspirations. If we can encourage them to overcome their fears they will then be able to do the work required to be proficient in an area they once feared or excel in areas that they have set forth high ambitions.

    Patrick, I liked your closing statement “we depend on Gen Ed to provide some opportunity for personal development”. It helps me remember that a student’s college years are so complex.


    John McCullough

    I’m going to go with “Who Stole the Door?” as my chapter of greatest interest. I’ve read a bit of Feynman before this, and have always been inclined to like him. This chapter made me realize he is just a jerk, and very selfish. What really stuck out for me was him leaving the tip for some busy waitress under a glass full of water. Difficult and time-consuming to retrieve the tip without getting water all over the place. He was thinking of it as a funny puzzle to solve and a way to get the waitress to have to slow down and think a little, but she was just trying to get through her shift.

    This is directly applicable to general education because it makes clear the importance of context, communication, and consent. The same trick with the nickel and the glass would have been a big hit at a party, where people could choose whether or not to engage with it. By putting that trick into the context of a busy restaurant, it was disruptive and frustrating and likely did not actually encourage any of the outcomes he claimed to have intended.

    There is definitely value in challenging students in ways they are not expecting, but if that practice is too common or poorly executed it can serve to undermine the whole experience.


    Christopher Swift

    Hi all,

    I found the early chapters that covered Feynman’s adolescence and early adulthood the most interesting and revelatory. Clearly, he had an endlessly curious mind — and this quality propelled him in his research and schooling. On the one hand, this reminds us that project-based learning can be very effective; it provides students with relevant, engaging problems to solve and the learning (and even new discovery) happens along the way. On the other hand, when you compare Feynman’s persistent chutzpa and passion to the “average” City Tech student, many of whom are predisposed to distrust, fear, or misunderstand the usefulness of higher education, the challenge we/I have as an instructor(s) feels daunting.

    For our purposes — and to add to the perceptive comments that precede mine — I think if Feynman had more actively involved himself in the liberal arts — like writing, for instance — the book could have been far more compelling. His uninterrupted use of first person singular was tedious. Many times I didn’t understand the point to his stories. Can anyone (who is not a biologist) parse this for me:

    “Now the ‘code’ was shifted and could not be ‘read’ anymore. The second mutation was either one in which an extra base was put back in, or two more were taken out. Now the code could be read again. The closer the second mutation occurred to the first, the less message would be altered by the double mutation, the the more completely the phage would recover its lost abilities. The fat that there are three “letters” to code each amino acid was thus demonstrated.”

    If he’s writing for a general audience, he just lost it. And his prose is very clumsy.

    Sometimes I got the impression that he was simply typing out notes word-for-word from his diary. No use of connectives… just a rambling congregation of thoughts.



    Hello. I agree that I too enjoyed the beginning chapters of the book the most. Feynman’s childhood as a quirky brilliant kid building radios was fun. I also liked his description of the fake “English” life at college, with the academic robes and the posh accents, and his fraternity brothers all pitching in. But I also feel as he moves along he gets to be one tiresome man. At one point I just thought “The world has to have people like this. I admire people like this. He is a genius. But I would never want to be in a room with him.” I do feel it was refreshing, (and applicable to Gen Ed), that he seemed interested in just everything. He did not limit himself and he stretched and stretched in terms of who he associated with and what he studied.


    Sean MacDonald

    Clearly, Feynman’s desire to push beyond the boundaries of what many would consider their ‘comfort zone’ was inspiring. The initial chapters that demonstrate his curiosity about the world – about the unknown- leads to a need to learn more and accomplish more and then some. Learning to fix radios leads to using that knowledge to try something new – to apply a newly learned skill to some new project. He isn’t hesitant to open doors and ask questions and insert himself into situations that most would think twice about before doing.

    In the chapter, “Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman!” the author’s curiosity about disciplines other than physics leads him to investigate other disciplines – philosophy, biology because as he puts it, “It would be nice to see what the rest of the world is doing.”

    This interest in making connections across disciplines leads both the curious outsider and the students of the other disciplines to view questions they are examining from perspectives they may not have considered had the interactions not occurred.

    Curious character or creative genius? (probably both). If not for curiosity, from where would genius emerge? There is much about the concept and meaning of Gen. Ed. that has the capacity to instill curiosity, questioning and the desire to overcome the fear of new challenges.


    I too enjoyed the chapters about his younger years and how curious he was and not afraid to try new things. His curiosity continued through adulthood and pretty much defines who he was throughout every aspect of his life. His curiosity and need for knowledge trumps everything in his life, from what other people think to even his relationships. I found it interesting that throught the time his wife was very sick and even to the point where she was dying he chose to be away from her working. I think these earlier chapters really show how intellect and cruiosity lead him to seeing the world from different perspectives and angles which is the whole point of general education. Pushing yourself to broaden your horizons and see things beyond your comfort bubble are what make a well rounded individual.

    Unlike John MuCullugh, I don’t actually think he is a jerk, but I do find his mischevous nature could probably rub people the wrong way, even if his intent is not malicious. I feel he has more of a tendency to be a bit oblivious socially, possibly selfish at times, but I wouldn’t say malicious by any means.

    I also found it crazy that someone could actully be that “lucky” or that “unlucky”. It was as if sometimes what he is describing is hard to believe could actually happen to one person. For instance from “Los Alamos From Below” where he doesn’t know what the symbols on the blueprint mean so he randomly points to a symbol and asks “so what happends if…” and suddenly he solved a huge problem. Or when on his way to seeing his dying wife he 1) has the foresight to pick up two hitchhikers “in case something happens with the car”, and 2) gets 3 flat tires on the way , but still makes it hours before his wife dies.



    There were quite a few chapters that resonated with me in “Surely Your Are Joking, Mr. Feynman” and so it is hard to pick just one. I felt that many of the chapters connected to General Education because Feynman has such a questioning mindset that he rarely takes the conventional path but wanders “off-road” intellectually in disciplines outside of his chosen field, physics. He makes it clear that these explorations introduce him to concepts that later inform and expand his approach to physics. Two chapters I particularly liked in this regard were “Always Trying to Escape,” “Mixing Paints”and “Is Electricity Fire?”. In “Always Trying to Escape,” I loved his solution of writing a parody called ” On a piece of Dust” instead of criticizing the essay by Huxley ” On a Piece of Chalk.” This is a wonderful creative critical response to the assignment and the type of free-thinking that we try to instill in students in the field in which I teach, advertising design and graphic arts.

    In this same chapter, I also found compelling his discussion of the philosophy class where all he heard was “wugga, wugga, wugga” and then he has to write a theme about what the professor has been talking about all year and he can only recall “stream of consciousness.” Feyman’s ability to turn lemons into lemonade and write his theme by exploring and analyzing his own falling asleep process really connected with me as I’ve often used the disjointed thoughts I have during the hazy period prior to sleep and just before waking to fuel creative work I’ve been working on. It was fascinating to read how this well-known scientist took the time to analyze and note this process on an daily basis for a month.

    The fact that Feyman brings such concerted effort to a philosophy paper for a Professor who mumbled made me think about Gen Education and how, as an educator, I could inspire students to draw on questions that interest them to raise their work to another level. For Feyman answers a question for this philosophy paper his father had posed to him years ago about “how does the mind atually turn off” and it is this that motivates him to detail his sleeping process and write a theme that the Professor winds up reading aloud to the other students-even though Feyman doesn’t notice it until the “Uh wugga wuy” verse ending! The question of turning on student’s internal motivation is, to my mind, the real challenge of any educator and getting students to bring questions to one’s class that they want to pursue produces the student’s best work. Of course, Feyman’s anecdote had me wugga wuther I evah haf sounded like this philosophy professor to students and reminded me of the teachers in Charlie Brown cartoons who never speak but one just hears “Wah wah woh wah wah”. I always think of Charlie Brown whenever I’m on the subway or the LIRR and trying to decipher the annoucements over loudspeakers.

    Even as I write this, I then started to wonder what was the sound effected used for the teachers in the Charlie Brown animated cartoon and the google search results for “Charlie Brown”teacher were quite entertaining and had to force myself to return to this post. But it seems as if the teacher sound effects were done using a trombome and there are many great youtube posts of teacher talk on youtube. I particularly liked the post “How to sound like a Charlie Brown Adult at but my favorite was Charlie Brown’s Spelling Bee with School Teacher’s Voice” at I wondered whether Charles Shultz ever read Feynman. I’ve a feeling Feynman would appreciated this animated short of Charlie Brown’s spelling bee.

    In fact, I think Feyman would have related to Charlie Brown’s spelling of “insecure” as Feyman’s book openly discusses how, even after he is an established scientist, he still is unsure of his knowledge and this questioning of his own assumptions. In “Mixing Paints,” Feynman discovers that his innate distrust of intellectuals, including himself, in favor of the “practical” man is not so well-founded as sometimes the practical man forgets what he does by rote. I related to this chapter as I teach color to students each semester and so I was puzzled by the idea of a painter making yellow from red and white and was perhaps just as relieved as Feynman to read that the painter did indeed need a tube of yellow paint to make yellow. But what was particularly interesting about Feynman’s story was that he felt the need to watch the painter do his work rather than simply relying on his knowledge of light as he was open to the possibility that his knowledge was incorrect. Similarly, I really liked becausethe opening of the Chapter “Is Electricity Fire?” because it describes Feyman’s feelings of insecurity when he reads the book list for the conference he has been invited to attend and he hasn’t read that many of the books and he feels as he is “illiterate.” All of us can related to these feelings. When he does attend the conference, he finds that the language of academia often is overly complex. I loved his deciphering one sentence down to “People can read.” I think this is a relevant anecdote as one of the issues still in academia today is how to make information in the specific disciplines accessible to all and avoid the use of jargon.


    Dr. Williams

    I enjoyed several of the chapters, but his early life, his embracing “thinking” is what sticks with me–what I try to push in my own classes. “You just ask Them” and “Testing Bloodhounds” were interesting, but nothing stuck with me like the drive and determination to shake things up Feynman discovered in his early years. His quest for self-discovery and what he learned about his own personality takes many a lifetime to learn. In “Lucky Numbers,” he continues the theme of amazing strangers with his ability to think, a skill most, even in 2014, do not embrace unless forced–a skill academia on every level has failed to instill.

    In “Who Stole the Door,” Feynman’s date with the deaf women–going to their party simply because they invited him and “its an adventure!”–speaks to shaking life up, always trying something different because it exists. Arguably, the stagnation and ruts of life that lead to depression can be avoided if we don’t accept the fear and loathing of others–if we decide to, as the author asserts, simply work the muscles we have and constantly discover ourselves. His success as an adult is because he always, as Gen Ed attempts to promote, applied his academic pursuits to his actual life. Everything he invented, he did to make his own life easier. And his ability to accept failure, even as a child, is a remarkable character trait.

    “I learned that innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world.”



    Mary Sue Donsky

    “You Just Ask Them” stuck with me as well. I thought it was creepy how Feynman was interested in learning how to manipulate “girls” and how he made distinctions between girls in bars and “normal” girls. The lesson he learned was to never be a gentleman but rather to disrespect girls and never buy them anything until they have agreed to sleep with him. Ew. He claimed not to use the manipulative techniques after “it worked” with the “nice, ordinary, Southern girl” but I think this chapter displayed some of the jerkiness that John mentioned.



    For the purposes of our project I take Mr. Feynman’s infinite curiosity and determination are characteristics that afforded him amazing experiences. He was able to meet incredible minds, and partake in research that has had clear and significant impact on the world we live in. Additionally, he details his interactions with other disciplines and the growth these afforded him and when ultimately challenging (but they were never that challenging to him, now were they?). Definitely something to heed.
    With another lens, though, I do find Mr. Feynman’s self congratulatory style a bit off putting. He spends a great deal of time detailing the intricacies of his genius, masked with humor of course, but unveiling arrogance. He never speaks of the social context in which he was able to exist and thrive as a physicist. Often Mr. Feynman states in variety of ways ” I haven’t got the speed to think like that; my first reaction is immediate, and i say the first thing that comes to mind” unconcerned with the outcome of his words. A perspective that comes from a position of privilege. These types of statements disregards the context of his gender and racial privilege to many extents ( he always meets great “men” and interacts with “girls”). Similarly, while he extensively writes about the challenges and thrills of working in Los Alamos, never do we hear his perspectives on the moral implications of helping to develop a weapon of mass destruction-never stopping to wonder “just because i can, should i?” and the historical impact of this scientific achievement. We further find very little reflections about his dealings and copings with the death of his first wife. Instead, we are thrusted into a world of an auto laudatory odyssey of safe picking.
    I appreciate Feynman’s commitment to inquiry, and his sincere delight in finding the “how”. “How does this work?”- a questions that drives great minds to accomplish great things. But great scientific accomplishments are not always great humanity for or help develop great human interactions. Post-edit Plus, he is a chauvinist jerk.


    Lynda Dias

    Thanks you all for sharing!
    One of my favorite quotes from the book was in the chapter String Beans, with over 20 years in the hotel business, this one had me laughing on the A train…surely all in the car thought I was a little crazy!
    After Feynman moves the phone at the front desk to deliver more efficient service to the caller, he says “I tried to explain—it was my own aunt—there that there was no reason not to do that, but you can’t say that to anybody who’s SMART, who runs a hotel! I learned there than innovation is a very difficult thing in the real world.” Hysterical!!

    In the chapter Los Alamos from Below, Feynman mentions his “different box of tools” in solving a problem and discusses it in a previous chapter. We all have this “different box of tools” and I am always to challenged to fill it with knowledge, understanding and thinking differently about various subjects and issues.

    So my question is how will we innovatively fill our “different box of tools” this semester and think about how we challenge our students build their “different box of tools”.

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