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Feynman's Rainbow: The Creative Mind

by Leonard Mlodinow, Written 2003

How the creative mind works and the vagabond Nobel  laureate.

STAYING PLAYFUL, having fun, keeping a youthful outlook. It was clear to me that for Feynman, staying open to all the possibilities of nature, or life, was a key to both his creativity and his happiness.
I asked him, "Is it foolish to become mature?" 
He thought for a moment. He shrugged.

I'm not sure. But an important part of the creative process is play. At least for some scientists. It is hard to maintain as you get older. You get less playful. But you shouldn't, of course. I have a large number of entertaining mathematical type of problems, little worlds of this kind that I play in and that I work in from time to time. . . . Everything, well, not everything, but lots of stuff turns out to be useful. You just play it out.

The creative mind has a vast attic. That homework problem you did in college, that intriguing but seemingly pointless paper you spent a week deciphering as a postdoc, that offhand remark of a colleague, all are stored in hope chests somewhere up in a creative person's brain, often to be picked through and applied by the subconscious at the most unexpected moments.

It is a part of the creative process that transcends physics.

For instance, Tschaikovsky wrote, "The germ of a future composition comes suddenly and unexpectedly. If the soil is ready."

And Mary Shelley: "Invention does not consist in creating out of void, but out of chaos."

And Stephen Spender: "There is nothing we imagine which we do not already know. And our ability to imagine is our ability to remember what we have already once experienced and to apply it to some different situation."


Plenty of other advances were made by older physicists, but the most revolutionary seemed to be made by the young. It had been understood among us graduate students that, for mathematical and theoretical physics brainpower, our minds were at their peak. But Feynman seemed to be seeing it differently, as if we go downhill not because of mental decline, but due to some kind of brainwashing. Maybe that's why he avoided learning new things from books or research papers; he was famous for always insisting on deriving new results himself, on understanding them his way. To him, to stay young meant to retain a beginner's outlook. He had clearly succeeded.

"Look," he said. "You've found food." 
There was a big buffet in the Athenaeum courtyard. There seemed to be a wedding reception going on. We stopped and gazed at the crowd in their elegant dresses, suits, and ties. 
"Yeah, but unfortunately we're not invited." 
"I see you are an expert in etiquette." 
"What do you mean?" 
"I mean, if you are not invited, does it mean you aren't welcome?" 
I shrugged. "I usually assume that." 
"Then I guess you aren't that hungry." 
I thought about it for a moment. 
"Well, we're not exactly dressed for it." He had on a dress shirt and slacks. I was clad in shorts and a T-shirt. 
"Of course we aren't. What scientist goes to work looking like he's dressed for a wedding? Well, other than Murray." He laughed. 
"You'll come with me?"  I said. 
He grinned. We headed to the buffet. He looked on as I started loading my plate. At first no one seemed to pay much attention to us, but then a man in a tuxedo came up behind us in line. 
"Bride's side or groom's?" the man asked. 
"Neither," said Feynman. The man looked us up and down. My mind raced, searching for a lie that might minimize my embarrassment. Then Feynman said, "We represent the physics department." 
The man smiled, took some salad, and walked away, seemingly unbothered by either the answer or our attire.


" . . .I just wanted to thank You.., for all you've taught me."
"I haven't taught you anything," Faynman said.
"You've taught me about myself"
"That's bullshit. What have I taught you?"
"I guess I'm still sorting it out . . . but like just now . . . you've taught me a way of looking at the world, I guess. And where I fit in."
"First of all, like 'just now,' I didn't teach you that, you did. I can't teach you how you fit in, you have to discover that yourself And secondly, I'm a lousy teacher, so I doubt I have taught you anything."
"Okay, then . . . thanks for all the . . . conversations we've had. Whether or not you've taught me anything, I've enjoyed them."
"Look, if you're going to insist that I've taught you something, I guess I should give you a final exam."
"One question."
"Go. look at an electron microscope photograph of an atom, okay? Don't just glance at it. It is very important that you examine it very closely. Think about what it means."
'And then answer this question. Does it make your heart flutter?"
"Does it make my heart flutter?"
"Yes or no. It's a yes or no question. No equations allowed."
'All right, I'll let you know."
"Don't be dense. I don't need to know. You need to know. This exam is self-graded. And it's not the answer that counts, it's what you do with the information."
We locked eyes. His younger face flashed in my mind. The energetic, smiling bongo drum player I had seen pictured in the front of his book, The Feynman Lectures on Physics. A question popped from my lips.
"Do you have any regrets?" I said.
Feynman didn't snap back that it was none of my business. He didn't do anything for a moment. I wondered if he would open up about his frustration with quantum chromodynamics. But then his eyes welled up with tears.
"Sure," he said. "I regret that I might not live to see my daughter, Michelle, grow up."

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