Even if Richard Feynman had not been a great communicator, he'd still be famous today for the incredible contributions he made to physics. The fact is, however, Feynman was indeed a great communicator as well as a Nobel-Prize winning physicist. Who knew the two could go together? Lawrence Krauss, a physicist and advocate of the public understanding of science, says in his "ASU Origins Project: Storytelling Of Science" talk that Feynman's abilities as a communicator inspired him to want to be a scientist. "What was amazing about Feynman was that he conveyed his excitement and his interest and the integrity of science." For Feynman "science was an adventure," Krauss says. "Everything in life [for Feynman] was an adventure. Learning—just the pleasure of finding things out." Feynman's passion for learning and for teaching physics was infectious, says Krauss.
While researching Feynman's lectures, I stumbled on to a fantastic YouTube channel called SciShow. One of their videos is a 10-minute presentation called Richard Feynman, The Great Explainer, part of their Great Minds series of presentations. I like the simple, quirky, visual way they present the story of Feynman here. Watch it below.
The communication of science
There are many great scientists, and there are many people who are skilled at explaining things, even complicated, technical phenomena. Unfortunately, being a great scientist and being a great explainer often are thought to be mutually exclusive. Your own experience may suggest that remarkable communicators of science are very rare, but I wonder how much of this is merely an example of confirmation bias. The narrative of the day, after all, is that men and women of science are not skilled communicators, nor should they be. But this is a myth and sometimes even a lazy excuse for bad teaching and dull, lifeless explanations. Not all great scientists need to be remarkable teachers or inspiring, engaging communicators of science. But certainly a scientist who is charged with also teaching others must necessarily be a good teacher.
On learning the joy of finding things out
Much of his visual and clear approach to explaining things, says Feynman, he learned as a small child from his father. "Everything we would read we would translate, as best we could, to some reality. So that I learned to do that—everything that I would read I would try to figure out what it really means, what it's really saying." Translating abstract ideas into concrete realities that one can see is a simple, natural, and highly engaging way of learning and also of explaining even difficult to comprehend ideas.
As a father of two very small children myself, I adore this clip above of Feynman recalling lessons he learned about learning—or the joy of finding things out, as Feynman calls it—from his father. Feynman says his father knew the difference between knowing the name of something and really knowing something. "That's the way I was educated by my father, with those kind of examples and discussions. No pressure. Just lovely, interesting discussions." I'll take a child who is deeply curious and intrinsically motivated to pursue the joy of finding things out rather than one who is supremely obedient, and deeply motivated by pressure and extrinsic rewards. Unfortunately schools—even some elementary schools—are designed for the most part to nurture the latter.