The Richard Feynman Guide to Parenting


Vikram Bath

Vikram Bath is the pseudonym of a former business school professor living in the United States with his wife, daughter, and dog. (Dog pictured.) His current interests include amateur philosophy of science, business, and economics. Tweet at him at @vikrambath1.

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20 Responses

  1. Avatar Will Truman says:

    The postscript just made my evening.Report

  2. Avatar Michael Cain says:

    I liked the whole post, Vikram. One of the things I often say about myself after study, research, etc: “I don’t have any answers; but the quality of my questions is greatly improved.” “Why do objects have inertia?” is a good enough question to last a lifetime.Report

  3. Avatar Michael Drew says:

    Sorry, but I don’t really believe Feynman’s dad really said much of any of that. Did he know the names of all the other birds in their neck of the woods in three languages, too? And the rest of the critters? Or was everyone in his neighborhood just really interested in brown-throated thrushes? Or what?

    Maybe I’m not supposed to believe it literally. I do believe he told him the point isn’t really what the names of animals and birds are, though. I’ll buy that.Report

  4. Avatar veronica d says:

    Funny thing, I’m reading volume three of his lectures right now, in that I saw this post when I took a break from reading. So yeah.

    You should ask your kid, “So hon, do you think that’s the same moon? Or do you think it’s a different moon each time?” I’m actually curious about what she’d say.Report

  5. Avatar Stillwater says:

    In each, whatever scientific factual knowledge is delivered with an immediate attempt to negate the feeling of smug satisfaction that comes with knowing the proper name of something.

    I think the moral is that learning the names of things only gives you knowledge of what people do, not any knowledge about the things themselves, yeah? Feynman’s dad is pointing out a waddyacall “category error” or somesuch.Report

  6. I really liked this post, too.Report

  7. Avatar John Pearson says:

    Your daughter is correct. You can never look at the same Moon twice. Its relationship to space and gravity change with time. Incidentally, you cannot cross the same river once. It has changed by the time you get to the other side.Report

    • Avatar zic says:

      And everybody sees a different rainbow.Report

    • Avatar Stillwater says:

      You can never look at the same Moon twice.

      Only if you analyze the sentence “looking at the same moon” in terms of looking and not mooning. I mean, the moon – for all its asteroidal changes over time – is the same thing that’s been orbiting the earth since … what? … the fifth day?Report

      • Avatar Stillwater says:

        Oh, and when you step into the Cache La Poudre at T1 and step into again at T2, you’ve actually stepped into the same river twice. You just haven’t stepped into the same water twice, yeah?Report

  8. Avatar Michael Poteat says:

    I use Feynman’s example with my students. It has been years since I have read Feynman’s little books but his point about knowing the name of something doesn’t mean we know the phenomena is a very important one. In clinical psychology (and clinical psychiatry) we use a nomenclature based on a check list of symptoms (actually I don’t use the nomenclature but I sometimes have to teach part of it) but we fool ourselves into thinking that naming something gives us some understanding and control. Our labels in many cases probably have little relationship to reality. It has been pointed out that the role of the Shaman was useful even if the Shaman could only provide a name for an illness.

    This was true historically (and still to a certain degree today) when we receive a diagnosis of a disease. Now we know what is wrong and we are relieved to have a cause! The problem is that being able to name something may mislead us into thinking we know how to treat something or understand how something works.

    As I recall, Feynman (fine-man not fin-men) describes his father as very intelligent and self-educated.Report

  9. Avatar Tod Kelly says:

    This is why the proper answer to this question from your child is always, “That’s the Sky Monster, who comes down and eats children that don’t do what their daddy tells them to do the first time he tells them to do it.”Report

  10. Avatar Kazz says:

    To bridge the gap between these two “approaches”, I’d say a good response would be to say something along the lines of, “Well, we call that thing up there “the moon”. As to what it is… well, what do you think it is?” Naming things is as much about convenience as anything else. Suppose you didn’t offer her a term for that thing in the sky. It’d be much harder for you and her to discuss it. So you can certainly name it. But stress that you are naming it… not defining it or anything else. “Here is a word we will use to identify the thing that you/we will investigate in far greater depth.”Report