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Idea Seeds #05 - Problem Solving, the Giants

Updated on January 22, 2017
 In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal, Physics World,  Richard Feynman was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time.
In a 1999 poll of 130 leading physicists worldwide by the British journal, Physics World, Richard Feynman was ranked as one of the ten greatest physicists of all time. | Source

Wondering Why.

Richard Feynman appended this short poem to one of his class assignments when he was an undergraduate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in Boston USA. His impressed professor read it aloud to the class.

“I wonder why, I wonder why. I wonder why I wonder.

I wonder why I wonder why I wonder why I wonder!”

His ‘wondering why’ lead to him becoming one of the real giants in Physics and being honoured with a Nobel Prize in 1965. This is what the ‘Independent’ had to say when a book he wrote about ‘light’ was launched: “The theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) is one of the pinnacles of humanity’s achievements; if you are looking for a work that is universal in scope and yet is a creation of the human spirit, there is nothing to rival this book; an attempt by the century’s cleverest physicist to describe in simple terms the subject he created”.

giants and Giants.

He is the second person that my father, Andrew Sass, would want to introduce you to from a group of people he calls ‘my Giants’. I introduced you to the first in Article 4, Ernst, (Fritz), Schumacher but did not say then that he was one of ‘my Giants’; the label he gives to the group of people who have had a huge influence on his thinking and in the shaping of his ‘world view’. The group comprises people he has actually met and got to know as well as those who have influenced him through their writings and achievements. The exercise to identify the group germinated from an ‘idea-seed’ given to him by one of his mentors many years ago. Doing so has brought him great joy and helped him with the evolutionary process of his understanding. The benefits are real and he strongly recommends you start identifying a group of your own. After he set out to make his group, it soon became clear that he had to differentiate between those who had ‘influenced’ him and those who had ‘greatly influenced’ him. He does this by labeling them with a lower case or a capital letter, ‘my giants’ or ‘my Giants’.


A Giant's KISS

Richard Feynman was a great exponent of the ’Keep-It-Seriously-Simple’ (‘KISS’) approach. My father has learnt a great deal from his writings, one topic in particular being the efficient way that things in nature go about their business. Physicists refer to this as ’The principle of least action’ or what he calls being ’smart-lazy’. Joseph Lagrange, born 1736 and a famous astronomer and mathematician, was one of the first to ‘analyse’ the path planets took and found no matter what forces were at play, the planet always chose the most economical path, or more correctly, they obeyed the ‘principle of least action’. Richard Feynman was at first skeptical about universality of the ‘principle of least action’ and continued to work everything out from first principles. He said he would not feel he understood the real physics until he had painstakingly isolated and calculated all the forces for himself. Only once he had convinced himself by doing the calculations many times with the same result, did he become a believer in the ’principle of least action’.


Simplicity and Grace.

I strongly recommend you read James Glieck’s wonderfully informative book ‘Genius’ in which he chronicles not only Richard Feynman’s life but also those he influenced and who had influenced him; it’s a very readable potted history of the evolution of modern physics. As he puts it: “The universe wills simplicity; Newton’s laws provide the mechanics; the ‘principle of least action’ ensures the grace.”

Richard Feynman’s approach to NOT accept other people’s ideas and findings until he had had time to verify that the information had come from a “reliable” source or he had checked it out and convinced himself that it was true, is one worth considering for ones own approach when dealing with new information and ideas. There is no harm in starting off with some ‘non-arrogant skepticism’.


Here is an example of ’KISS’ as used by him: In the diagram, (in engineering and architectural drawing terms, a ‘Top View’), you will see the position of a lifeguard on a beach some distance from the water’s edge. Diagonally from him is a drowning swimmer in the sea also some distance from the water’s edge. The lifeguard can run faster than he can swim. What path should he follow to get to the drowning swimmer as quickly as he can?

The dotted-dashed straight line between the lifeguard and the drowning swimmer is the “shortest” distance but not the quickest possible for this case. The dashed line shows the path with the shortest swim, but again it is not the quickest. The solid line shows the path and the point where the lifeguard should enter the water to get to the drowning swimmer in the least possible time. Lifeguards develop a natural instinct about ‘approximately” where to enter the water to minimise the time to get to people in distress.


Think now about what the path would look like if the lifeguard could swim at the same speed he could run at? − If the lifeguard could swim faster than he could run? I trust that you have already gone through your ‘Problem Solving Checklist’ and identified the ‘limits’ involved before penciling in your answers


"Smart lazy" Light

Most people are aware that light travels faster through air than water. It chooses the angle of refraction precisely so that the ‘time’ it takes for the light to travel from an underwater object to an observer’s eye is minimised. It obeys the ‘principle of least action’. The same goes for glass prisms and lenses. Look at the diagram again but now view it as a ‘Side View’. Replace the beach with air, the drowning man with and underwater object and the lifeguard with the eye of an observer. The solid line now represents the ray of light travelling from the underwater object to the observer’s eye. Make your own pencil sketch. Don’t forget to ‘annotate’ it so when you get to look at it again later you will need less time to get yourself back up to speed. Also, don’t forget to put a note on it to remind you that light obeys the ‘principle of least action’. Investing in a little extra labeling on the diagram when everything is still in context and familiar can save a great deal of time later. It’s all part of a concept called ‘Return-On-Investment’, (’ROI’), an essential concept in the world of money markets but one I adopted as an essential concept in my ‘smart-lazy’ approach. Essential too is a ‘smart personal filing system’ from which information can quickly and effortlessly be retrieved; subjects that will be looked at again in future articles.


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