Piddling around
3 min read

Piddling around

Lessons on play from a physicist.
Piddling around

Playing could help you win the Nobel Prize. Maybe.

Physicist Richard Feynman was gifted in many ways, but his most two most captivating qualities were his child-like curiosity and his simplicity. Not traits you'd often associate with physicists...

In his lectures, Feynman demonstrated his world class ability to craft far-reaching and mind-bending concepts about the secrets of the universe into the most seemingly simple, every day way.

Combined with his child like curiosity of how things work, he was a powerful communicator.

In his biography 'Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman', he talks about spending time as a child trying to understand how and why water flows out of a tap in a certain way. Or spending time learning how ants communicate. Or demonstrating to friends how we can indeed smell whether or not someone recently touched a book.

This child-like curiosity never, ever left Feynman. He did sound like a pest at times, but his way of seeing the world ensured he was forever alive with curiosity and learning.

And that's where play comes in.

"I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling. I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate—two to one. It came out of a complicated equation! Then I thought, “Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics, why it’s two to one?” I don’t remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance to make it come out two to one."

Feynman had no reason for doing this aside from his own amusement.

But because his interest was piqued, he had the best kind of motivation to start exploring - with no specific end goal in mind. His motivation was the process of discovery.

"I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, “Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it’s two to one is . . .” and I showed him the accelerations. He says, “Feynman, that’s pretty interesting, but what’s the importance of it? Why are you doing it?” “Hah!” I say. “There’s no importance whatsoever. I’m just doing it for the fun of it.” His reaction didn’t discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked."

Even when asked 'why?', he wasn't deterred.

He carried on because it was his passion and because he found it fun.

He knew that following his interest and passion would lead to a fulfilling result - even if others didn't see it that way.

Be a child

There's a lesson here for all of us - and as someone who was terrible at physics at school I promise it is relevant.

While we can't play all the time and Feynman was probably pushing the boundaries of what people can get away with, he always made sure there was an element of play in his work.

Because, as we know with children, when learning feels like play, it's fun.

We learn and explore in a far better way: starting feels easy, time does not drag, and we open ourselves up to new questions and ways of seeing.

And, it can lead to tremendous results.

It certainly did for Feynman:

"It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate."

The older I get, the more I realise how important it is to hold on to the child-like qualities and still take time to play. If we can add elements of play into our daily life and work, everything will be all the better for it.

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