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An open mind is an asset when picking classes

Gerald Bradshaw

Gerald Bradshaw

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Updated: June 12, 2014 11:50PM



Parents always ask what their children should study in college.

No matter what their major might turn out to be — history, economics or engineering — I always recommend a good reading list in the sciences to help answer that question.

At the top of my list is Caltech physicist Richard Feynman.

I first came across Feynman as a freshman at Berkeley. I decided to take a bonehead physics course for designated non-majors. Berkeley was (and still is) famous for its brilliant physicists (Oppenheimer and Lawrence, for example), but I didn’t want to end up looking stupid so I took it for a pass/fail.

I asked the smartest student I knew which class was best. He said unhesitatingly, “Take the class that uses Richard Feynman’s textbook ‘Lectures on Physics.’ ”

Even though Feynman was from Caltech (a Berkeley rival), he was considered to be the best physics teacher in the country. I was never happier with my decision. His textbook was based on his freshman lecture series at Caltech.

I learned a great deal more about physics than I ever imagined. I could identify with the Nobel prize winner, and he struggled with problems the same way that I did. He said his IQ was only 125 and not in the 160 nosebleed range that most physicists have, but he always tried to be creative when solving problems — to the point of playing bongo drums at parties to help himself relax. He said that that experience helped him discover his famous “Feynman Curves” that won him his Nobel prize.

Perhaps it was his love of learning that also helped me identify with him. He hardly ever attended world conferences on physics or hobnobbed with the world-famous scientific establishment. He would rather spend his time working with local high school science classes in Pasadena and the Los Angles community.

He was always interested in the most fundamental of questions — not what we learn, but how we learn.

With Feynman, it was somehow less pretentious to talk about fundamental learning theories, and he made the subject of learning seem important. He made you feel important and his lecture series gave me an appreciation of science that I have kept all my life.

Years later, I ran across him again. This time he was on the Challenger commission investigating the cause of the space shuttle crash.

He made everyone look like a fool. Debates raged among those on the blue-ribbon panel as to the cause of the explosion. Was it a mechanical failure or was it human error?

Feynman said it was human error. He said the shuttle never should have been launched that day because it was too cold outside. The sub-32 degree temperatures at the launch pad made the rubber O-ring gaskets on the engines too brittle to seal properly. He explained that the brittleness of the seal allowed hot gasses to spew out between the two sections of the engine and pierce the shuttle’s external fuel tank. This caused the explosion.

The number-filled charts and graphs provided by NASA officials proved inconclusive on this point.

Finally, in exasperation, Feynman stood up and proceeded to do an experiment to prove his point. He dunked a strip of rubber O-ring material into a champagne bucket filled with ice water. He pulled it out and twisted it into various shapes. It never sprung back to its original profile. This simple demonstration proved his point. Many in the audience gasped at the truth of its simplicity. It was pure Feynman as I remembered him from his textbook. Always down to earth.

A collection of Feynman’s letters has been published, “Perfectly Reasonable Deviations from the Beaten Track: The Letters of Richard Feynman.”

For those interested in what great human instincts lie behind a great human mind, I can recommend none better — to parents and students alike.

For those interested in Feynman’s place in the history of science, there is “The Making of the Atomic Bomb,” by Richard Rhodes. The best history of science I have ever read — and the best written.

So be willing to go out of your comfort zone when choosing your college classes. You never know when you might stumble across a course that will change your career path or influence your life experiences forever.



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