Surely You aren’t Joking, Mr. Feynman!

Richard Feynman was a very serious and critical thinker. He deeply reflected on all that he observed. I love his 'reflective' stories whenever I get to read about them or hear or see them on videos. Here is one of my favorite stories:

Once he was reviewing a book on school mathematics. And this is the story he had to say:


Finally I come to a book that says, “Mathematics is used in science in many ways. We will give you an example from astronomy, which is the science of stars.” I turn the page, and it says, “Red stars have a temperature of four thousand degrees, yellow stars have a temperature of five thousand degrees . . .” — so far, so good. It continues: “Green stars have a temperature of seven thousand degrees, blue stars have a temperature of ten thousand degrees, and violet stars have a temperature of . . . (some big number).” There are no green or violet stars, but the figures for the others are roughly correct. It’s vaguely right — but already, trouble! That’s the way everything was: Everything was written by somebody who didn’t know what the hell he was talking about, so it was a little bit wrong, always! And how we are going to teach well by using books written by people who don’t quite understand what they’re talking about, I cannot understand. I don’t know why, but the books are lousy; UNIVERSALLY LOUSY

I’m a bit unhappy when I read about the stars’ temperatures, but I’m not very unhappy because it’s more or less right — it’s just an example of error. Then comes the list of problems. It says, “John and his father go out to look at the stars. John sees two blue stars and a red star. His father sees a green star, a violet star, and two yellow stars. What is the total temperature of the stars seen by John and his father?” — and I would explode in horror.

There’s no purpose whatsoever in adding the temperature of two stars. Nobody ever does that except, maybe, to then take the average temperature of the stars, but not to find out the total temperature of all the stars! It was awful! All it was was a game to get you to add, and they didn’t understand what they were talking about. It was like reading sentences with a few typographical errors, and then suddenly a whole sentence is written backwards. The mathematics was like that. Just hopeless!


The unfortunate thing is that we keep repeating such errors with all seriousness time and again.

For example, we know the population of the earth to be around 6 billion. At present, this population is divided into two groups — the developed nations and the developing nations. Basically, the distinction lies in the amount of energy people consume in the two camps. People in developed nations consume much more energy than people of developed nations. Sometimes the order of magnitude can be 1000 times.

But that is not the problem. The problem is when we start thinking about issues like global warming and sustainability. In such times, we start adding up just like adding up the temperatures of the stars and then project and predict figures of global warming assuming that all of 6 billion people would want to be at par with the best standard of living by consuming equivalent amount of energy as presently done by the people of the developed nations.

Now that is 'UNIVERSALLY LOUSY' thinking as the possibility of all 6 billion people enjoying the same standard of living is ridiculously low or virtually zero. The rich and the poor divide is going to stay so long some of us want to improve upon or maintain the standard of living enjoyed by the developed nations.

We continue to do such horrible mistakes in the business world too. We add numbers and come up with meaningless understanding.

How good is the manpower?

Well, we are 1000 strong.

How good or stable is the company?

We have a turnover of over $10 billion and growing at the rate of 5% every year.

How talented are we?

We are extremely talented. We have 100 professionally trained managers and 300 professional engineers.

There is turbulence inside this turbine gear box.

How can that be? The temperature of the gear box is only 65 degrees C.

This is simply hopeless type of thinking.

Surely, Feynman wasn't joking.

Next time we are tempted to 'add' or manipulate numbers just be careful about whether it means anything.

In most cases it would prove to be meaningless. 

Source of the Story on Richard Feynman:


One Response to “Surely You aren’t Joking, Mr. Feynman!”

  1. Lakshmi Pathi.C Says:

    This is a very good article.

    This is an illustration on how numbers are misused.

    Often people in authority use numbers to drive innocent subordinates with charts, graphs, worksheets.

    If only these “number people” realise the following.

    Concepts are explained by numbers.
    Numbers in themselves do not become concepts.

    Numbers are meaningful with proper conceptualisation.

    This is a scenario of today’s corporate world.

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