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How A Genius Thinks

2014 June 8

The philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer once said that, “talent hits a target no one else can hit; Genius hits a target no one else can see.”  Lots of people are smart, but true genius has always had an element of mystery to it.

Nobody really knows where genius comes from.  While surely there is a genetic component, most child prodigies do not attain outstanding professional success.  Some creativity experts consider genius to be a method as much as it is an ability.

However, while many people define genius differently, most agree that Richard Feynman was one and there is probably no better example of his brilliance than his famous talk, There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.   It not only launched a revolution in physics and engineering that is still being played out today, it shows us how a true genius really thinks.

A Complex Problem Posed Simply

When Feynman stepped up to the podium to address the American Physical Society a few days after Christmas in 1959, it should have been clear that he didn’t intend to deliver an ordinary physics lecture.  Always an iconoclast, the title of Feynman’s talk noted no obscure particles or mysterious forces, but simply pointed to some “room at the bottom.”

Yet no one could have been prepared for what took place that day.  Standing alone in that auditorium, armed with no props or complex apparatus, Feynman would singlehandedly pioneer nanotechnology—engineering at the microscopic level—a field that even now is considered to be at the forefront of human endeavor.

He didn’t begin with grandiose terms, but simply asked the question: “Why cannot we write the entire 24 volumes of the Encyclopaedia Brittanica on the head of a pin?”  In that moment, he created an entirely new field with very little in the way of prologue or precursor.

Today, the nanotechnology market is worth billions and continues to grow at rapid rate.  It has become fundamental to innovation in areas ranging from semiconductors to revolutionary new materials to life saving new drugs and medical therapies—all made possible by one man’s imagination.

Exploring Multitude Paths

Feynman was clearly a dreamer, but he went about it in a very practical, business-like way. Once he suggested the possibility of writing Encyclopaedia Brittanica on the head of a pin, he immediately launched into some back-of-the-envelope calculations to establish  the feasibility of the task. He then asked almost reflexively, “Why not every book in the world?”

From there he was off and running.  How to write small?  Well, we can reverse the lenses of an electron microscope and write in the manner of a cathode ray oscilloscope, a common apparatus at the time. (In essence, that’s how microchips are etched today).  And if we can write books, why can’t we build tiny molecular machines?  (We now do just that).

Yet Feynman did not only see the possibilities, he saw the problems too.  Electron microscopes were not powerful enough at the time and there were theoretical limits to making them stronger.  Subatomic forces would create complications as well.  Undeterred, he conjured up potential workarounds for every obstacle, many which proved to be viable.

When you read Feynman’s talk, you get the feeling that he is not so much a physicist or an engineer, but an explorer.  Much like the famous biologist E.O. Wilson, he wanders around the nano-ecosystem, picking up objects of interest, examining them, figuring out where they fit and moving on.

Operating In A Natural Language

Wittgenstein famously pointed out that our tendency to speak in a private language often obscures understanding.  Talk show pundits and boardroom hotshots are fond of using obscure terms and acronyms to signal their sophistication, but in fact by doing so they often lose meaning.  Confusion serves no one except those who intend to deceive.

Yet Feynman spoke—and thought—naturally.  Even when speaking to esteemed scientists, he did so as if he were just chatting with the proverbial man on the street.  His 1959 talk, despite its groundbreaking ramifications, can be understood by a relatively talented high school student.

And you can see how it aided his cause.  By putting things in simple terms, he gained clarity and so did his audience.  Even the term, “nanotechnology,” was not used until 15 years later, at a scientific conference in 1974.  Until then, it was just Feynman’s “room at the bottom.”

Feynman loved to communicate and built enduring—and sometimes unlikely—friendships with people from all walks of life.  While many academics of his prominence avoided undergraduate lectures, he reveled in them.  Perhaps not surprisingly, they were often standing room only.

A Passion For Problem Solving

By the end of his 1959 talk, Feynman had covered an amazing amount of ground: molecular computers, microscopic machines, mechanical “surgeons” that can operate inside blood vessels and issues regarding scale and quantum effects.  All were held up to light, examined and explored.   Each remains at the core of nanotechnology today.

In his conclusion Feynman did something unusual.  He issued two challenges and offered $1000 of his own money for the completion of each.  The first was to write text at nano-scale and the second was to create a microscopic motor.  It took less than a year for the motor to be completed and text was first reduced to the required scale in 1985.

Yet even more important than the completion of the challenges was Feynman’s motivation for issuing them and offering his own money to do so.  It wasn’t enough for him to come up with the idea or even to work out paths to solutions.  His real passion was seeing problems solved and he was never reluctant to collaborate or share credit.

Feynman devoted his life to unlocking the secrets of the universe, but was just as passionate about the people in it.  He was no lone genius, working in secret, but saw science as an inherently social activity.  It was not enough for him to “hit a target no one else can see,” he wanted us to see it too.

And that’s what made Feynman a special kind of genius.  He let us in.  It wasn’t enough for him to merely demonstrate brilliance, he wanted to share it so that we could make it our own.

– Greg

5 Responses leave one →
  1. Khalid Sharrieff permalink
    June 8, 2014

    Excellent article, full practical insight. The Creator’s gift to the human family is limitless.

  2. June 9, 2014

    What an amazing insight, thx for sharing.

  3. June 9, 2014

    Thanks Jasper. I’m glad you liked it.

    – Greg

  4. Sandro Melo permalink
    February 22, 2015

    Amazing article, thank you!

    It drives us back to simplicity and willingness to achieve a result through effective communication rather than posing as a star or celebrity.

    Quick question: can we say that Steve Jobs was a better communicator than a programmer/boss?

    Sandro Melo
    Recife – PE

  5. February 23, 2015

    Thanks Sandro. Steve Jobs was certainly not a great engineer (and I don’t know if he was a programmer at all), and he was a very good communicator. However, I think his true talent was that he had a profound empathy that drove his design sense (but not his personal life).

    Jobs was an extremely complicated person. I profiled him along with Bill Gates a while back. You can find the article here.

    – Greg

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