Is Electricity Fire?
In the early fifties I suffered temporarily from a disease of middle age: I used to give philosophical talks about science—how science satisfies curiosity, how it gives you a new world view, how it gives man the ability to do things, how it gives him power—and the question is, in view of the recent development of the atomic bomb, is it a good idea to give man that much power? I also thought about the relation of science and religion, and it was about this time when I was invited to a conference in New York that was going to discuss “the ethics of equality.”
There had already been a conference among the older people, somewhere on Long Island, and this year they decided to have some younger people come in and discuss the position papers they had worked out in the other conference.
Before I got there, they sent around a list of “books you might find interesting to read, and please send us any books you want others to read, and we will store them in the library so that others may read them.”
So here comes this wonderful list of books. I start down the first page: I haven’t read a single one of the books, and I feel very uneasy—I hardly belong. I look at the second page: I haven’t read a single one. I found out, after looking through the whole list, that I haven’t read any of the books. I must be an idiot, an illiterate! There were wonderful books there, like Thomas Jefferson On Freedom, or something like that, and there were a few authors I had read. There was a book by Heisenberg, one by Schrodinger, and one by Einstein, but they were something like Einstein, My Later Years and Schrodinger, What Is Life—different from what I had read. So I had a feeling that I was out of my depth, and that I shouldn’t be in this. Maybe I could just sit quietly and listen.
I go to the first big introductory meeting, and a guy gets up and explains that we have two problems to discuss. The first one is fogged up a little bit—something about ethics and equality, but I don’t understand what the problem exactly is. And the second one is, “We are going to demonstrate by our efforts a way that we can have a dialogue among people of different fields.” There was an international lawyer, a historian, a Jesuit priest, a rabbi, a scientist (me), and so on.
Well, right away my logical mind goes like this: The second problem I don’t have to pay any attention to, because if it works, it works; and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work—we don’t have to prove that we can have a dialogue, and discuss that we can have a dialogue, if we haven’t got any dialogue to talk about! So the primary problem is the first one, which I didn’t understand.
I was ready to put my hand up and say, “Would you please define the problem better,” but then I thought, “No, I’m the ignoramus; I’d better listen. I don’t want to start trouble right away.”
The subgroup I was in was supposed to discuss the “ethics of equality in education.” In the meetings of our subgroup the Jesuit priest was always talking about “the fragmentation of knowledge.” He would say, “The real problem in the ethics of equality in education is the fragmentation of knowledge.” This Jesuit was looking back into the thirteenth century when the Catholic Church was in charge of all education, and the whole world was simple. There was God, and everything came from God; it was all organized. But today, it’s not so easy to understand everything. So knowledge has become fragmented. I felt that “the fragmentation of knowledge” had nothing to do with “it,” but “it” had never been defined, so there was no way for me to prove that.
Finally I said, “What is the ethical problem associated with the fragmentation of knowledge?” He would only answer me with great clouds of fog, and I’d say, “I don’t understand,” and everybody else would say they did understand, and they tried to explain it to me, but they couldn’t explain it to me!
So the others in the group told me to write down why I thought the fragmentation of knowledge was not a problem of ethics. I went back to my dormitory room and I wrote out carefully, as best I could, what I thought the subject of “the ethics of equality in education” might be, and I gave some examples of the kinds of problems I thought we might be talking about, For instance, in education, you increase differences. If someone’s good at something, you try to develop his ability, which results in differences, or inequalities. So if education increases inequality, is this ethical? Then, after giving some more examples, I went on to say that while “the fragmentation of knowledge” is a difficulty because the complexity of the world makes it hard to learn things, in light of my definition of the realm of the subject, I couldn’t see how the fragmentation of knowledge had anything to do with anything approximating what the ethics of equality in education might more or less be.
The next day I brought my paper into the meeting, and the guy said, “Yes, Mr. Feynman has brought up some very interesting questions we ought to discuss, and we’ll put them aside for some possible future discussion.” They completely missed the point. I was trying to define the problem, and then show how “the fragmentation of knowledge” didn’t have anything to do with it. And the reason that nobody got anywhere in that conference was that they hadn’t clearly defined the subject of “the ethics of equality in education,” and therefore no one knew exactly what they were supposed to talk about.
There was a sociologist who had written a paper for us all to read—something he had written ahead of time. I started to read the damn thing, and my eyes were coming out: I couldn’t make head nor tail of it! I figured it was because I hadn’t read any of the books on that list. I had this uneasy feeling of “I’m not adequate,” until finally I said to myself, “I’m gonna stop, and read one sentence slowly, so I can figure out what the hell it means.”
So I stopped—at random—and read the next sentence very carefully. I can’t remember it precisely, but it was very close to this: “The individual member of the social community often receives his information via visual, symbolic channels.” I went back and forth over it, and translated. You know what it means? “People read.”
Then I went over the next sentence, and I realized that I could translate that one also. Then it became a kind of empty business: “Sometimes people read; sometimes people listen to the radio,” and so on, but written in such a fancy way that I couldn’t understand it at first, and when I finally deciphered it, there was nothing to it.
There was only one thing that happened at that meeting that was pleasant or amusing. At this conference, every word that every guy said at the plenary session was so important that they had a stenotypist there, typing every goddamn thing. Somewhere on the second day the stenotypist came up to me and said, “What profession are you? Surely not a professor.”
“I am a professor,” I said.
“Oh! That must be the reason,” he said.
“Reason for what?”
He said, “You see, I’m a stenotypist, and I type everything that is said here. Now, when the other fellas talk, I type what they say, but I don’t understand what they’re saying. But every time you get up to ask a question or to say something, I understand exactly what you mean—what the question is, and what you’re saying—so I thought you can’t be a professor!”
There was a special dinner at some point, and the head of the theology place, a very nice, very Jewish man, gave a speech. It was a good speech, and he was a very good speaker, so while it sounds crazy now, when I’m telling about it, at that time his main idea sounded completely obvious and true. He talked about the big differences in the welfare of various countries, which cause jealousy, which leads to conflict, and now that we have atomic weapons, any war and we’re doomed, so therefore the right way out is to strive for peace by making sure there are no great differences from place to place, and since we have so much in the United States, we should give up nearly everything to the other countries until we’re all even. Everybody was listening to this, and we were all full of sacrificial feeling, and all thinking we ought to do this. But I came back to my senses on the way home.
The next day one of the guys in our group said, “I think that speech last night was so good that we should all endorse it, and it should be the summary of our conference.”
I started to say that the idea of distributing everything evenly is based on a theory that there’s only X amount of stuff in the world, that somehow we took it away from the poorer countries in the first place, and therefore we should give it back to them. But this theory doesn’t take into account the real reason for the differences between countries—that is, the development of new techniques for growing food, the development of machinery to grow food and to do other things, and the fact that all this machinery requires the concentration of capital. It isn’t the stuff, but the power to make the stuff, that is important. But I realize now that these people were not in science; they didn’t understand it. They didn’t understand technology; they didn’t understand their time.
The conference made me so nervous that a girl I knew in New York had to calm me down. “Look,” she said, “you’re shaking! You’ve gone absolutely nuts! Just take it easy, and don’t take it so seriously. Back away a minute and look at what it is.” So I thought about the conference, how crazy it was, and it wasn’t so bad. But if someone were to ask me to participate in something like that again, I’d shy away from it like mad—I mean zero! No! Absolutely not! And I still get invitations for this kind of thing today.
When it came time to evaluate the conference at the end, the others told how much they got out of it, how successful it was, and so on. When they asked me, I said, “This conference was worse than a Rorschach test: There’s a meaningless inkblot, and the others ask you what you think you see, but when you tell them, they start arguing with you!
Even worse, at the end of the conference they were going to have another meeting, but this time the public would come, and the guy in charge of our group has the nerve to say that since we’ve worked out so much, there won’t be any time for public discussion, so we’ll just tell the public all the things we’ve worked out. My eyes bugged out: I didn’t think we had worked out a damn thing!
Finally, when we were discussing the question of whether we had developed a way of having a dialogue among people of different disciplines—our second basic “problem”—I said that I noticed something interesting. Each of us talked about what we thought the “ethics of equality” was, from our own point of view, without paying any attention to the other guy’s point of view. For example, the historian proposed that the way to understand ethical problems is to look historically at how they evolved and how they developed; the international lawyer suggested that the way to do it is to see how in fact people actually act in different situations and make their arrangements; the Jesuit priest was always referring to “the fragmentation of knowledge”; and I, as a scientist, proposed that we should isolate the problem in a way analogous to Galileo’s techniques for experiments; and so on. “So, in my opinion,” I said, “we had no dialogue at all. Instead, we had nothing but chaos!”
Of course I was attacked, from all around. “Don’t you think that order can come from chaos?”
“Uh, well, as a general principle, or … I didn’t understand what to do with a question like “Can order come from chaos?” Yes, no, what of it?
There were a lot of fools at that conference—pompous fools—and pompous fools drive me up the wall. Ordinary fools are all right; you can talk to them, and try to help them out. But pompous fools—guys who are fools and are covering it all over and impressing people as to how wonderful they are with all this hocus pocus—THAT, I CANNOT STAND! An ordinary fool isn’t a faker; an honest fool is all right. But a dishonest fool is terrible! And that’s what I got at the conference, a bunch of pompous fools, and I got very upset. I’m not going to get upset like that again, so I won’t participate in interdisciplinary conferences any more.
A footnote: While I was at the conference, I stayed at the Jewish Theological Seminary, where young rabbis—I think they were Orthodox—were studying. Since I have a Jewish background, I knew of some of the things they told me about the Talmud, but I had never seen the Talmud. It was very interesting. It’s got big pages, and in a little square in the corner of the page is the original Talmud, and then in a sort of L-shaped margin, all around this square, are commentaries written by different people. The Talmud has evolved, and everything has been discussed again and again, all very carefully, in a medieval kind of reasoning. I think the commentaries were shut down around the thirteen– or fourteen– or fifteen-hundreds—there hasn’t been any modern commentary. The Talmud is a wonderful book, a great, big potpourri of things: trivial questions, and difficult questions—for example, problems of teachers, and how to teach—and then some trivia again, and so on. The students told me that the Talmud was never translated, something I thought was curious, since the book is so valuable,
One day, two or three of the young rabbis came to me and said, “We realize that we can’t study to be rabbis in the modern world without knowing something about science, so we’d like to ask you some questions.”
Of course there are thousands of places to find out about science, and Columbia University was right near there, but I wanted to know what kinds of questions they were interested in.
They said, “Well, for instance, is electricity fire?”
“No,” I said, “but… what is the problem?”
They said, “In the Talmud it says you’re not supposed to make fire on a Saturday, so our question is, can we use electrical things on Saturdays?”
I was shocked. They weren’t interested in science at all! The only way science was influencing their lives was so they might be able to interpret better the Talmud! They weren’t interested in the world outside, in natural phenomena; they were only interested in resolving some question brought up in the Talmud.
And then one day—I guess it was a Saturday—I want to go up in the elevator, and there’s a guy standing near the elevator. The elevator comes, I go in, and he goes in with me. I say, “Which floor?” and my hand’s ready to push one of the buttons.
“No, no!” he says, “I’m supposed to push the buttons for you.”
“Yes! The boys here can’t push the buttons on Saturday, so I have to do it for them. You see, I’m not Jewish, so it’s all right for me to push the buttons. I stand near the elevator, and they tell me what floor, and I push the button for them.”
Well, this really bothered me, so I decided to trap the students in a logical discussion. I had been brought up in a Jewish home, so I knew the kind of nitpicking logic to use, and I thought, “Here’s fun!”
My plan went like this: I’d start off by asking, “Is the Jewish viewpoint a viewpoint that any man can have? Because if it is not, then it’s certainly not something that is truly valuable for humanity … yak, yak, yak.” And then they would have to say, “Yes, the Jewish viewpoint is good for any man.”
Then I would steer them around a little more by asking, “Is it ethical for a man to hire another man to do something which is unethical for him to do? Would you hire a man to rob for you, for instance?” And I keep working them into the channel, very slowly, and very carefully until I’ve got them—trapped!
And do you know what happened? They’re rabbinical students, right? They were ten times better than I was! As soon as they saw I could put them in a hole, they went twist, turn, twist—I can’t remember how—and they were free! I thought I had come up with an original idea—phooey! It had been discussed in the Talmud for ages! So they cleaned me up just as easy as pie—they got right out.
Finally I tried to assure the rabbinical students that the electric spark that was bothering them when they pushed the elevator buttons was not fire. I said, “Electricity is not fire. It’s not a chemical process, as fire is.”
“Oh?” they said.
“Of course, there’s electricity in amongst the atoms in a fire.”
“Aha!” they said.
“And in every other phenomenon that occurs in the world.”
I even proposed a practical solution for eliminating the spark. “If that’s what’s bothering you, you can put a condenser across the switch, so the electricity will go on and off without any spark whatsoever—anywhere.” But for some reason, they didn’t like that idea either.
It really was a disappointment. Here they are, slowly coming to life, only to better interpret the Talmud. Imagine! In modern times like this, guys are studying to go into society and do something—to be a rabbi—and the only way they think that science might be interesting is because their ancient, provincial, medieval problems are being confounded slightly by some new phenomena.
Something else happened at that time which is worth mentioning here. One of the questions the rabbinical students and I discussed at some length was why it is that in academic things, such as theoretical physics, there is a higher proportion of Jewish kids than their proportion in the general population. The rabbinical students thought the reason was that the Jews have a history of respecting learning: They respect their rabbis, who are really teachers, and they respect education. The Jews pass on this tradition in their families all the time, so that if a boy is a good student, it’s as good as, if not better than, being a good football player.
It was the same afternoon that I was reminded how true it is. I was invited to one of the rabbinical students’ home, and he introduced me to his mother, who had just come back from Washington, D.C. She clapped her hands together, in ecstasy, and said, “Oh! My day is complete. Today I met a general, and a professor!”
I realized that there are not many people who think it’s just as important, and just as nice, to meet a professor as to meet a general. So I guess there’s something in what they said.