The Richard Feynman Guide to Parenting

Since the days have been getting shorter, last night I was able to point at the sky and say to my daughter “That’s the Moon.” I wonder now if that was a mistake.

I’ve linked to Richard Feynman’s talk “What is Science?” before:

When I was still pretty young–I don’t know how old exactly–I had a ball in a wagon I was pulling, and I noticed something, so I ran up to my father to say that “When I pull the wagon, the ball runs to the back, and when I am running with the wagon and stop, the ball runs to the front. Why?

How would you answer?

Feynman’s father said,

“That, nobody knows.” He said, “It’s very general, though, it happens all the time to anything; anything that is moving tends to keep moving; anything standing still tries to maintain that condition. If you look close you will see the ball does not run to the back of the wagon where you start from standing still. It moves forward a bit too, but not as fast as the wagon. The back of the wagon catches up with the ball, which has trouble getting started moving. It’s called inertia, that principle.” I did run back to check, and sure enough, the ball didn’t go backwards. He put the difference between what we know and what we call it very distinctly.

“Nobody knows”? As Feynman says, his father does not mistake the fact that he knows the word “inertia” for knowing why objects have inertia. He doesn’t know how to take out or put in the inertia of an object. Inertia is just there, and he can describe it. But he doesn’t consider that *knowing*. He won’t even tell his presumably very young son that he knows.

Here is Feynman interacting with one of his peers as a boy:

…this boy said to me, “See that bird standing on the stump there? What’s the name of it?”

I said, “I haven’t got the slightest idea.”

He said, “It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you much about science.”

I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn’t tell me anything about the bird. He taught me “See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird–you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way,” and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

Knowing the name for a thing can function as a curiositystopper. Presumably, Feynman’s father could have spent the time he spent talking about how to say “brown-throated thrush” in Mandarin to deliver more factual knowledge. Instead, he used it to emphasize the limits of knowing the name of something.

I am only aware of these two anecdotes of Feynman’s father. In each, whatever scientific factual knowledge is delivered with an immediate attempt to negate the feeling of smug satisfaction that comes with knowing the proper name of something.

You’re probably familiar with the graphs displaying the phenomenon where the more you learn about a topic the more you realize you don’t know about it. When you don’t know very much, it is easy to learn some vocabulary and thus feel you know everything.

We only feel we don’t know very much about something when we know nothing or when we genuinely approach expertise. Feynman’s father seems to be explicitly trying to inculcate that sense of there’s-so-much-I-don’t-know from the beginning. He seems intent on Feynman being familiar with his epistemic limits throughout his learning curve.

Lunar eclipse photo

Image by Grempz

Tonight, my daughter joyfully looked up in the sky and identified the Moon. I am glad she can do this. But is she doing it with misplaced pride? Should I tell her that “Moon” is the word English-speakers use, but make sure she also understands that the word itself doesn’t tell you anything about the Moon actually *is*?

Postscript: The day after writing this, my daughter again identified the Moon. Ten minutes later, when we moved to another location she announced “Another Moon!”

Image by Grempz

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20 thoughts on “The Richard Feynman Guide to Parenting

  1. I liked the whole post, Vikram. One of the things I often say about myself after study, research, etc: “I don’t have any answers; but the quality of my questions is greatly improved.” “Why do objects have inertia?” is a good enough question to last a lifetime.


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  3. Sorry, but I don’t really believe Feynman’s dad really said much of any of that. Did he know the names of all the other birds in their neck of the woods in three languages, too? And the rest of the critters? Or was everyone in his neighborhood just really interested in brown-throated thrushes? Or what?

    Maybe I’m not supposed to believe it literally. I do believe he told him the point isn’t really what the names of animals and birds are, though. I’ll buy that.


  4. Funny thing, I’m reading volume three of his lectures right now, in that I saw this post when I took a break from reading. So yeah.

    You should ask your kid, “So hon, do you think that’s the same moon? Or do you think it’s a different moon each time?” I’m actually curious about what she’d say.


  5. In each, whatever scientific factual knowledge is delivered with an immediate attempt to negate the feeling of smug satisfaction that comes with knowing the proper name of something.

    I think the moral is that learning the names of things only gives you knowledge of what people do, not any knowledge about the things themselves, yeah? Feynman’s dad is pointing out a waddyacall “category error” or somesuch.


  6. Your daughter is correct. You can never look at the same Moon twice. Its relationship to space and gravity change with time. Incidentally, you cannot cross the same river once. It has changed by the time you get to the other side.


  7. I use Feynman’s example with my students. It has been years since I have read Feynman’s little books but his point about knowing the name of something doesn’t mean we know the phenomena is a very important one. In clinical psychology (and clinical psychiatry) we use a nomenclature based on a check list of symptoms (actually I don’t use the nomenclature but I sometimes have to teach part of it) but we fool ourselves into thinking that naming something gives us some understanding and control. Our labels in many cases probably have little relationship to reality. It has been pointed out that the role of the Shaman was useful even if the Shaman could only provide a name for an illness.

    This was true historically (and still to a certain degree today) when we receive a diagnosis of a disease. Now we know what is wrong and we are relieved to have a cause! The problem is that being able to name something may mislead us into thinking we know how to treat something or understand how something works.

    As I recall, Feynman (fine-man not fin-men) describes his father as very intelligent and self-educated.


  8. This is why the proper answer to this question from your child is always, “That’s the Sky Monster, who comes down and eats children that don’t do what their daddy tells them to do the first time he tells them to do it.”


  9. To bridge the gap between these two “approaches”, I’d say a good response would be to say something along the lines of, “Well, we call that thing up there “the moon”. As to what it is… well, what do you think it is?” Naming things is as much about convenience as anything else. Suppose you didn’t offer her a term for that thing in the sky. It’d be much harder for you and her to discuss it. So you can certainly name it. But stress that you are naming it… not defining it or anything else. “Here is a word we will use to identify the thing that you/we will investigate in far greater depth.”


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