The Challenge of an Original Thought

Over the past few days I’ve been reading through a stack of Wired magazines that have accumulated in my apartment over the past few months.  As I was reading through an article Eureka! (a photo essay on where inspiration comes from), I came across the following image:

It’s the Cornell cafeteria where in 1946 Richard Feynman watched some students spin plates in the air.  Improbably, these plates would lead to a Nobel Prize:

Within a week 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.

I still remember going to Hans Bethe [1967 physics Nobel Laureate twelve years Feynman’s senior] and saying, “Hay, 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.

I went on to work out equations of wobbles. Then I thought about how electron orbits start to move in relativity. Then there’s the Dirac Equation [Paul Dirac, 1933 physics Nobel Laureate] in electrodynamics. And then the quantum electrodynamics. And before I knew it (it was a very short time) I was “playing” — working, really — with the same old problem that I loved so much, that I stopped working on when I went to Los Alamos: my thesis-type problems [at Princeton]; all those old-fashioned, wonderful things.

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 [Feynman diagrams] and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.  (Source)

When Feynman looked back to his Nobel Prize-winning work, he wrote:

It was the first time, and only time, in my career that I knew a law of nature that nobody else knew.  The other things I had done before were to take somebody else’s theory and improve the method….I thought of Dirac, who had his equation [of 1928] for a while – a new equation which told him how an electron behaved – and I had this new equation for beta decay, which wasn’t as vital as the Dirac equation, but it was good.  It’s the only time I ever discovered a new law.  (Source)

Why do I share this?  Three reasons:

  1. It’s hard to have an original thought: Feynman is considered one of the greatest minds of the 20th century yet he concedes that in his entire career he only had one truly original discovery
  2. Since it’s so hard to have an original thought, make sure you’re having fun.  It’s a long road so you’d better be enjoying the ride
  3. Be curious about the world – you never know where or how inspiration is going to strike