Richard Feynman On Magnetism and Understanding

One of the most advantageous (and enjoyable) traits to have or acquire, especially in the realm of science, is curiousity. To be perpetually curious is to be always wondering, questioning, imagining and asking why something is the way it is, why the world works the way it does. Like a child asking his or her parent an endless chain of why’s, it can be very interesting and wonderful to play this game scientifically. For example, in a Youtube video a man asks Richard Feynman to explain why magnets attract and repel eachother. Feynman refuses to answer the question because, as he explains, there are certain levels of understanding and certain circumstances and laws you need to realize and understand and comprehend before you can really understand how magnets work. The analogy Feynman uses (he is great at using analogies for teaching people and students) is this: There is a woman in the hospital. And the question is, well, why is she in the hospital? Well, because she has a broken hip. Why does she have a broken hip? Because she slipped on some ice. And then Feynman explains that if you were from a different planet you would be lost at this point (just as the interviewer and non-physics students would be lost as Feynman explains all the complicated laws associated with magnetism). So, Feynman explains how the alien, not understanding any of the story about the woman and her broken hip, would be asking all kinds of questions, why this, why that, how did that happen…eventually getting deeper and deeper and closer and closer to a more comprehensive understanding of what happened to the woman (or analogously how magnetism works). The alien might ask, why did the woman fall? Well, because ice is slippery. Well, why is ice slippery? And here Feynman suggests, is where things get interesting. You see, he says my idea is that the deeper you go down the more interesting the answers and explanations become. He goes on to explain how the slippery property of ice is basically one of a kind (because other slippery things are kind of greasy and slimy, but not ice). He says that because water expands when it goes from a liquid to solid and freezes, actually expands due to the way the hydrogen and oxygen molecules arrange themselves. So when the woman (or anyone) puts there foot on the ice the ice melts just a little to try and release some of the pressure from its molecular arrangement which makes it very slippery. Other solids are happy to support your weight and only crack or bend slightly when you put pressure on them. He continues, now the alien may ask why the woman fell downwards because on his planet the gravity is much, much weaker and they float around. Well, that’s due to the gravitational force and mass and all kinds of other things, nevermind that Feynman says. Eventually he says he cannot explain magnetism effectively or at all because he cannot relate it to anything the interviewer is familiar with (no decent analogies can be made). I love this little talk Feynman gives and the way he enjoys explaining the different levels of understanding and how he relates them to physics.

Here is the link to the talk:


About ben james

"The stars keep me up at night" -some song I heard one time Human. Studying the intersection of Neuroscience and Computation. Wanna be (astro) physicist.
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One Response to Richard Feynman On Magnetism and Understanding

  1. ben james says:

    Reblogged this on Bens Blog and commented:

    Always an inspiration listening to Feynman

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