Meaning Guide

Richard Feynman and the problem of “saying what one word means in terms of other words”

This time last year I posted an extract from Steven Pinker, in which he compared reading the word “stimulus” in an academic text to the phrase “tapping on the wrist”, which was what it actually meant. Pinker is one of the best examples I know of a scientist in the top-right quadrant of the “meaning curve”. Another is Richard Feynman, surely one of the most infectiously curious people who has ever lived. It’s impossible to watch a video of the man talking without being struck by how his passion for understanding reality was only matched by his passion for sharing that understanding with other people.

Here’s a story from Feynman’s life that sums it up perfectly1 Midway through his career he spent a year teaching physics in Brazil, and was struck by how much “book knowledge” the students had, without really knowing anything at all. At the end of the year the students asked him to deliver a lecture on his experience, and when he found out how many senior academics and government officials were going to attend, he said he would only do it on condition that he was free to say whatever he liked. On the day, the staff became nervous when they realised that Feynman was carrying the elementary physics textbook around as though it was going to be the main subject of his lecture, when the man who had written it was in the audience. “You’re not going to say anything bad about the textbook, are you?” Someone said. “Everybody thinks it’s a good textbook”.

Halfway through the lecture Feynman held the textbook up. “I have discovered something … by flipping the pages at random, and putting my finger in and reading the sentences on that page, I can show you what’s the matter …”

And so he flicked through, stuck his fingers in at random, and started reading:

“‘Triboluminescence: Triboluminescence is the light emitted when crystals are crushed.’

“And there, have you got science? No! You have only told what a word means in terms of other words. You haven’t told anything about nature – what crystals produce light when you crush them, why they produce light. Did you see any student go home and try it? He can’t.

“But if, instead, you were to write, ‘When you take a lump of sugar and crush it with a pair of pliers in the dark, you can see a bluish flash. Some other crystals do that too. No one knows why. The phenomenon is called “triboluminescence”.’ Then someone will go home and try it. Then there’s an experience of nature.”

I love that phrase: “You have only told what a word means in terms of other words.” What percentage of the management consultancy industry could be summed up with that sentence? When he died in 1988, someone took a photograph of Feynman’s blackboard; notice what’s written in the top left corner:

“What I cannot create I do not understand.” If words don’t connect to your experience then they’re just sound. Standing this on its head you get the basic formula for meaning-making: Find a shared experience, preferably one that will pique people’s curiosity, and connect your concept to that experience. If the shared experience doesn’t exist then you need to create it. Crush the sugar. Tell a story. Do a demonstration. If you can’t, then you aren’t making meaning, you’re just “saying what one word means in terms of other words.”

  1. . This story is from the chapter entitled ‘O Americano, Outra Vez’ in part 4 of the outrageous (and outrageously entertaining) collection of reminiscences that is Surely you’re joking, Mr Feynman – adventures of a curious character.

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