February 20, 2007

Feynman on lack of knowledge…

Posted in Lifehacks, Work at 2:35 am by a11en

Another quick post.  Those of you who know me, may know that I love Feynman’s crazy antics.  I should have suspected he was as deep a thinker as Bohr.  I have blogged in the past about lack of knowledge, and also shared some thoughts with a new graduate student in our group.  Fiore (The Now Habit) also has some thoughts about the lack of knowledge and procrastination.  I’m seeing some synergy here, so I wanted to share it.  Fiore’s basic idea is that at the beginning of a work (and I’ll leave “work” very loose here), we lack knowledge.  One can be scared away from the work because of the lack of knowledge… self-doubt about one’s ability to do the work will arise.  It is important to know that at the beginning of anything, we will lack appropriate knowledge… as we tackle the tasks at hand, we will learn, and accomplish more, and accomplish more, faster.  In fact, lacking “the knowledge”, as you so aptly state to yourself, is an indication that you are in no position to determine if you can finish the project or not- without jumping in, learning, working, and doing that project.  🙂  As you learn and do, so will your knowledge gain, and so will you finish the project at hand.

Feynman discusses the importance of lack of knowledge… “I can live with doubt and uncertainty…”  “I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.”  And finally: “He once defined science as belief in ignorance of experts.”  That last one caused me to laugh.  (As will it likely to any PhD student.)  In fact, he mentioned, it’s much more important to know you are ignorant… that way you can correct the problem.  🙂  These quotes are taken from Perfectly Reasonable Deviations, Michelle, Feynman.

I’d like to explain that this is true on many levels… For science as whole, work in the darker areas of our understanding is the only place to accomplish a new understanding and bring to light discovery.  For a personal understanding- those dark areas that you are afraid of, are the only areas you can work to push your knowledge base, to increase your chances of discovery for yourself!  Those areas you’re afraid of, aren’t so scary when you look hard for answers, dig further, contact people who understand those areas.  This is the trick for a student, for a learning person in any walk of life.  If you know where you don’t know something, that’s where you know you must work.  Only then, can you increase your knowledge.

So, lack of knowledge is important.  It defines our areas of discovery.  Not only that, if we come to these areas of darkness with an open mind (skeptical of experts as Feynman would want us to be), we are the Po’ the unformed block… capable of understanding new things perhaps even better than the experts do, because we see them in a new light for the first time.

So, being scared of the unknown is exactly what you *don’t* want to be if you want to achieve new discoveries and achieve personal growth in your own knowledge.  Scared of math?  I bet if you dig hard there, you’ll discover new things… with an anxious mind for exciting discovery, you may just enjoy yourself!  🙂


  1. desimo said,

    Glazing over your post reminded me to finish an article I’d been reading in the doctor’s office yesterday. This New Yorker article was about string theory in physics, and contained within it a Feynman quote expressing his annoyance with the nonsensical idea as a whole, and also many brilliant minds’ willingness to jump aboard in defense of something with so little evidence. The article has little to do with Richard Feynman; it just kinda reminded me of it. A worthwhile read for anyone interested in kindling / rekindling a Kuhnian scepticism about progress in science or academics in general…

  2. a11en said,

    Hey Desimo- nice of you to drop by! Thanks for that article link also! 🙂

    I think it’s a very interesting world- the world of the scientist. Getting the PhD has really opened my eyes as to how hard we work to try and present the best possible scenario in our journal articles. Usually only those who’re in the thick of it know really how tenuous the work is in the experimental labs. 🙂

    This leads to scientific cynicism, of course, but only when you become a cynic do you realize what is strong and what is weak in the work. Then, you somehow grow out of the cynicism into a positivism about accomplishing these hard tasks.

    In anycase, Feynman’s thoughts are wonderful, it’s also interesting to hear he really didn’t like string-theory that much. 🙂 I’ve read quite a bit here and there, but hand’t come across that yet. Interesting!

    Thanks again for the post, and drop in anytime!

    ps- Bohr’s lectures on Human Knowledge are wonderful also.

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