What Made Richard Feynman One of the Most Admired Educators in the World

If Richard Feyn­man had only ever pub­lished his work in the­o­ret­i­cal physics, his name would still be known far and wide. As it is, Feyn­man remains famous more than thir­ty years after his death in large part for the way he engaged with the pub­lic. From his pop­u­lar text­book The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics (which you can read free online here) to his best­selling con­ver­sa­tion­al essay col­lec­tions like Sure­ly You’re Jok­ing, Mr. Feyn­man to the class­es he taught at Cor­nell (now avail­able online) to his demon­stra­tion of what went wrong with the Space Shut­tle Chal­lenger, he kept in con­ver­sa­tion all his life with human­i­ty out­side the realm of pro­fes­sion­al sci­ence. This explains, in part, why Feyn­man became what Bill Gates calls, in the video above, “the best teacher I nev­er had.”

Gates points to Feyn­man’s lec­ture series “The Char­ac­ter of Phys­i­cal Law,” pre­vi­ous­ly fea­tured here on Open Cul­ture, as “a great exam­ple of how he could explain things in a fun and inter­est­ing way to every­one. And he was very fun­ny.”

That sense of humor com­ple­ment­ed a sense of rig­or: “Dr. Feyn­man used a tough process on him­self, where if he did­n’t real­ly under­stand some­thing, he would push him­self,” ask­ing ques­tions like “Do I under­stand this bound­ary case?” and “Do I under­stand why we don’t do it this oth­er way?” Such an effort to find the gaps in and fail­ures of one’s own under­stand­ing may sound famil­iar, fun­da­men­tal as it is to Feyn­man’s “note­book” tech­nique of learn­ing that we’ve post­ed about more than once before.

You only know how well you under­stand some­thing when you explain it to some­one else; many of us real­ize this, but Feyn­man lived it. The depth of his own under­stand­ing allowed him nev­er to be bor­ing: “Feyn­man made sci­ence so fas­ci­nat­ing,” Gates says, “He remind­ed us how much fun it is,” and in so doing empha­sized that “every­body can have a pret­ty full under­stand­ing. He’s such a joy­ful exam­ple of how we’d all like to learn and think about things.” Though the term “sci­ence com­mu­ni­ca­tor” was­n’t in wide use dur­ing Feyn­man’s life­time, he played the role to near-per­fec­tion. And in the kind of mate­ri­als high­light­ed here, he con­tin­ues to con­vey not just knowl­edge but, as he liked to put it, the plea­sure of find­ing things out.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

The Feyn­man Lec­tures on Physics, The Most Pop­u­lar Physics Book Ever Writ­ten, Is Now Com­plete­ly Online

‘The Char­ac­ter of Phys­i­cal Law’: Richard Feynman’s Leg­endary Course Pre­sent­ed at Cor­nell, 1964

Richard Feynman’s “Lost Lec­ture:” An Ani­mat­ed Retelling

Richard Feyn­man Intro­duces the World to Nan­otech­nol­o­gy with Two Sem­i­nal Lec­tures (1959 & 1984)

Richard Feynman’s “Note­book Tech­nique” Will Help You Learn Any Subject–at School, at Work, or in Life

The “Feyn­man Tech­nique” for Study­ing Effec­tive­ly: An Ani­mat­ed Primer

Based in Seoul, Col­in Mar­shall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall, on Face­book, or on Insta­gram.

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Comments (3)
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  • Anthony Moore says:

    Sim­ply the best teacher ever he real­ly want­ed every one to see the beau­ty and com­plex­i­ty of the uni­verse in which we find our­selves won­der­ful human being

  • J. L. Rajan says:

    My favorite teacher though we nev­er met each oth­er! When would l find a teacher like him!

  • John Dsubert says:

    If this arti­cle reach­es 1 new begin­ner to all that is Feyn­man, then I encour­age oth­ers to also ped­dle books via Feyn­man’s sto­ry. There are many var­ied types of peo­ple who read these sto­ries on their devices. Not all know Feyn­man. Ped­dle away, author!

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