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Richard P. Feynman
(11 May 1918 - 15 Feb 1988)

American theoretical physicist who was probably the most brilliant, influential, and iconoclastic figure in his field. His lifelong interest was in subatomic physics. In 1965, he shared the Nobel Prize in Physics for his work in quantum electrodynamics.

Science Quotes by Richard P. Feynman (40 quotes)

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'Conservation' (the conservation law) means this ... that there is a number, which you can calculate, at one moment—and as nature undergoes its multitude of changes, this number doesn't change. That is, if you calculate again, this quantity, it'll be the same as it was before. An example is the conservation of energy: there's a quantity that you can calculate according to a certain rule, and it comes out the same answer after, no matter what happens, happens.
— Richard P. Feynman
'The Great Conservation Principles', The Messenger Series of Lectures, No. 3, Cornell University, 1964. From transcript of BBC programme (11 Dec 1964).
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All things are made of atoms—little particles that move around in perpetual motion, attracting each other when they are a little distance apart, but repelling upon being squeezed into one another. In that one sentence ... there is an enormous amount of information about the world.
His suggestion that the most valuable information on scientific knowledge in a single sentence using the fewest words is to state the atomic hypothesis.
— Richard P. Feynman
Six Easy Pieces (1995), 4.
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As usual, nature's imagination far surpasses our own, as we have seen from the other theories which are subtle and deep.
— Richard P. Feynman
In The Character of Physical Law (1965), 162.
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But I don't have to know an answer. I don't feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe within any purpose, which is the way it really is, so far as I can tell. It doesn't frighten me.
— Richard P. Feynman
In Richard Feynman and Jeffrey Robbins (ed.), The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman (1999), 25, last sentence of Chap. 1. The chapter, with the same title as the book, is an edited transcript of an interview with Feynman made for the BBC television program Horizon (1981).
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But the real glory of science is that we can find a way of thinking such that the law is evident.
— Richard P. Feynman
The Feynman Lectures on Physics (1965), Vol. 1, 26-3. In Carver A. Mead, Collective Electrodynamics: Quantum Foundations of Electromagnetism (2002), 1.
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Einstein was a giant. His head was in the clouds, but his feet were on the ground. Those of us who are not so tall have to choose!
— Richard P. Feynman
Spoken at a seminar, as quoted by Carver A. Mead, Collective Electrodynamics: Quantum Foundations of Electromagnetism (2002), xix.
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Everything is made of atoms ... Everything that animals do, atoms do. ... There is nothing that living things do that cannot be understood from the point of view that they are made of atoms acting according to the laws of physics.
— Richard P. Feynman
In The Feynman Lectures (1963), 8.
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For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled.
Upon identifying the reason for the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger and his demonstration using immersion in iced water to show that O-rings grow brittle when cold.
— Richard P. Feynman
Concluding remark in Feynman's Appendix to the Rogers Commission Report on the Space Shuttle Challenger Accident. In (Jan 1987). In James B. Simpson, Simpson’s Contemporary Quotations (1988).
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For those who want some proof that physicists are human, the proof is in the idiocy of all the different units which they use for measuring energy.
— Richard P. Feynman
The Character of Physical Law (1967), 75.
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From a long view of the history of mankind the most significant event of the nineteenth century will be judged as Maxwell's discovery of the laws of electrodynamics.
— Richard P. Feynman
Quoted in Robert J. Scully, The Demon and the Quantum (2007), 3.
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Happy Birthday Mrs Chown! Tell your son to stop trying to fill your head with science—for to fill your heart with love is enough. Richard P. Feynman (the man you watched on BBC 'Horizon').
— Richard P. Feynman
Note to the mother of Marcus Chown. Reproduced in Christopher Simon Sykes, No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman (1996), 161. Chown's mother, though usually disinterested in science, had given close attention to a 1981 BBC Horizon science documentary that profiled Feynman. This was Feynman's own choice of a birthday message, although Chown (then a physics graduate student at Caltech) had anticipated that the scientist would have helped him interest his mother in scientific things. Marcus Chown was a radio astronomer at Caltech and is now a writer and broadcaster.
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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.
— Richard P. Feynman
From transcript of a BBC television program, 'The Pleasure of Finding Things Out' (1981). In Richard Phillips Feynman and Jeffrey Robbins (ed.), The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: the Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (2000), 24.
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I learned a lot of different things from different schools. MIT is a very good place…. It has developed for itself a spirit, so that every member of the whole place thinks that it’s the most wonderful place in the world—it’s the center, somehow, of scientific and technological development in the United States, if not the world … and while you don’t get a good sense of proportion there, you do get an excellent sense of being with it and in it, and having motivation and desire to keep on…
— Richard P. Feynman
From Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!: Adventures of a Curious Character (1985), 51.
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I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics.
— Richard P. Feynman
'Probability abd Uncertainty—the Quantum Mechanical View of Nature', the sixth of his Messenger Lectures (1964), Cornell University. Collected in The Character of Physical Law (1967), 129.
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I would like to be rather more special, and I would like to be understood in an honest way rather than in a vague way.
— Richard P. Feynman
In The Character of Physical Law (1965), 13.
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If I say [electrons] behave like particles I give the wrong impression; also if I say they behave like waves. They behave in their own inimitable way, which technically could be called a quantum mechanical way. They behave in a way that is like nothing that you have seen before.
— Richard P. Feynman
'Probability abd Uncertainty—the Quantum Mechanical View of Nature', the sixth of his Messenger Lectures (1964), Cornell University. Collected in The Character of Physical Law (1967), 128.
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If science is to progress, what we need is the ability to experiment, honesty in reporting results—the results must be reported without somebody saying what they would like the results to have been—and finally—an important thing—the intelligence to interpret the results.
— Richard P. Feynman
In The Character of Physical Law (1965), 148.
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If there is something very slightly wrong in our definition of the theories, then the full mathematical rigor may convert these errors into ridiculous conclusions.
— Richard P. Feynman
Feynman Lectures on Gravitation, edited by Brian Hatfield (2002), 21.
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If we want to solve a problem that we have never solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.
— Richard P. Feynman
In 'The Value of Science,' What Do You Care What Other People Think? (1988, 2001), 247. Collected in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (2000), 149.
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In this lecture I would like to conclude with ... some characteristics [of] gravity ... The most impressive fact is that gravity is simple. It is simple to state the principles completely and not have left any vagueness for anybody to change the ideas of the law. It is simple, and therefore it is beautiful. It is simple in its pattern. I do not mean it is simple in its action—the motions of the various planets and the perturbations of one on the other can be quite complicated to work out, and to follow how all those stars in a globular cluster move is quite beyond our ability. It is complicated in its actions, but the basic pattern or the system beneath the whole thing is simple. This is common to all our laws; they all turn out to be simple things, although complex in their actual actions.
— Richard P. Feynman
'The Law of Gravitation, as Example of Physical Law', the first of his Messenger Lectures (1964), Cornell University. Collected in The Character of Physical Law (1967), 33-4.
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Is no one inspired by our present picture of the universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you are reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this silence is that you have to know how to read music. For instance, the scientific article may say, 'The radioactive phosphorus content of the cerebrum of the rat decreases to one- half in a period of two weeks.' Now what does that mean?
It means that phosphorus that is in the brain of a rat—and also in mine, and yours—is not the same phosphorus as it was two weeks ago. It means the atoms that are in the brain are being replaced: the ones that were there before have gone away.
So what is this mind of ours: what are these atoms with consciousness? Last week's potatoes! They now can remember what was going on in my mind a year ago—a mind which has long ago been replaced. To note that the thing I call my individuality is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one discovers how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other atoms. The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out—there are always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the dance was yesterday.
— Richard P. Feynman
'What do You Care What Other People Think?' Further Adventures of a Curious Character (1988), 244.
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It always bothers me that according to the laws as we understand them today, it takes a computing machine an infinite number of logical operations to figure out what goes on in no matter how tiny a region of space and no matter how tiny a region of time ... I have often made the hypothesis that ultimately physics will not require a mathematical statement, that in the end the machinery will be revealed and the laws will turn out to be simple. ... But this speculation is of the same nature as those other people make - 'I like it','I don't like it' - and it is not good to be too prejudiced about these things.
— Richard P. Feynman
The Character of Physical Law (1965), 57. Quoted in Brian Rotman, Mathematics as Sign (2000), 82.
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It is going to be necessary that everything that happens in a finite volume of space and time would have to be analyzable with a finite number of logical operations. The present theory of physics is not that way, apparently. It allows space to go down into infinitesimal distances, wavelengths to get infinitely great, terms to be summed in infinite order, and so forth; and therefore, if this proposition [that physics is computer-simulatable] is right, physical law is wrong.
— Richard P. Feynman
International Journal of Theoretical Physics (1982), 21 Nos. 6-7, 468. Quoted in Brian Rotman, Mathematics as Sign (2000), 82.
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It is the facts that matter, not the proofs. Physics can progress without the proofs, but we can't go on without the facts ... if the facts are right, then the proofs are a matter of playing around with the algebra correctly.
— Richard P. Feynman
Feynman Lectures on Gravitation, edited by Brian Hatfield (2002), 137.
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Nature uses only the longest threads to weave her patterns, so that each small piece of her fabric reveals the organization of the entire tapestry.
— Richard P. Feynman
The Character of Physical Law (1965), 28. Quoted in William H. Cropper, Great Physicists (2004), 397.
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On the contrary, God was always invented to explain mystery. God is always invented to explain those things that you do not understand. Now when you finally discover how something works, you get some laws which you're taking away from God; you don't need him anymore. But you need him for the other mysteries. So therefore you leave him to create the universe because we haven't figured that out yet; you need him for understanding those things which you don't believe the laws will explain, such as consciousness, or why you only live to a certain length of time—life and death—stuff like that. God is always associated with those things that you do not understand. Therefore, I don't think that the laws can be considered to be like God because they have been figured out.
— Richard P. Feynman
Quoted in P. C. W. Davies and Julian Brown (eds.), Superstrings: A Theory of Everything? (1988), 208-9.
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One of the ways of stopping science would be only to do experiments in the region where you know the law. … In other words we are trying to prove ourselves wrong as quickly as possible, because only in that way can we find progress.
— Richard P. Feynman
In The Character of Physical Law (1965), 158.
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Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.
— Richard P. Feynman
In The Character of Physical Law (1965), 127-128. As cited in Daniel F. Styer, The Strange World of Quantum Mechanics (2000), 139.
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Philosophers have said that if the same circumstances don't always produce the same results, predictions are impossible and science will collapse. Here is a circumstance—identical photons are always coming down in the same direction to the piece of glass—that produces different results. We cannot predict whether a given photon will arrive at A or B. All we can predict is that out of 100 photons that come down, an average of 4 will be reflected by the front surface. Does this mean that physics, a science of great exactitude, has been reduced to calculating only the probability of an event, and not predicting exactly what will happen? Yes. That's a retreat, but that's the way it is: Nature permits us to calculate only probabilities. Yet science has not collapsed.
— Richard P. Feynman
QED: The Strange Theory of Light and Matter (1985), 19.
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Some people think Wheeler’s gotten crazy in his later years, but he’s always been crazy.
— Richard P. Feynman
Quoted in Dennis Overbye, 'John A. Wheeler, Physicist Who Coined the Term Black Hole, Is Dead at 96', New York Times (14 Apr 2008).
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The difficulty really is psychological and exists in the perpetual torment that results from your saying to yourself, “But how can it be like that?” which is a reflection of uncontrolled but utterly vain desire to see it in terms of something familiar. ... If you will simply admit that maybe [Nature] does behave like this, you will find her a delightful, entrancing thing. Do not keep saying to yourself, if you can possible avoid it, "But how can it be like that?" because you will get 'down the drain', into a blind alley from which nobody has escaped. Nobody knows how it can be like that.
[About wave-particle duality.]
— Richard P. Feynman
'Probability abd Uncertainty—the Quantum Mechanical View of Nature', the sixth of his Messenger Lectures (1964), Cornell University. Collected in The Character of Physical Law (1967), 129.
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The inside of a computer is as dumb as hell but it goes like mad!
— Richard P. Feynman
Feynman Lectures on Computation (1996), 7.
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The whole question of imagination in science is often misunderstood by people in other disciplines. ... They overlook the fact that whatever we are allowed to imagine in science must be consistent with everything else we know.
— Richard P. Feynman
In The Feynman Lectures in Physics (1964), Vol. 2, Lecture 20, p.20-10. As quoted by James Gleick in Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992), 324.
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The work I have done has, already, been adequately rewarded and recognized. Imagination reaches out repeatedly trying to achieve some higher level of understanding, until suddenly I find myself momentarily alone before one new corner of nature's pattern of beauty and true majesty revealed. That was my reward.
— Richard P. Feynman
Nobel Banquet Speech (10 Dec 1965).
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There is one simplification at least. Electrons behave ... in exactly the same way as photons; they are both screwy, but in exactly in the same way...
— Richard P. Feynman
'Probability abd Uncertainty—the Quantum Mechanical View of Nature', the sixth of his Messenger Lectures (1964), Cornell University. Collected in The Character of Physical Law (1967), 128.
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We are very lucky to be living in an age in which we are still making discoveries. It is like the discovery of America—you only discover it once. The age in which we live is the age in which we are discovering the fundamental laws of nature, and that day will never come again. It is very exciting, it is marvelous, but this excitement will have to go.
— Richard P. Feynman
From transcript of the seventh Messenger Lecture, Cornell University (1964), 'Seeking New Laws.' Published in The Character of Physical Law (1965, reprint 1994), 172.
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We have a habit in writing articles published in scientific journals to make the work as finished as possible, to cover up all the tracks, to not worry about the blind alleys or describe how you had the wrong idea first, and so on. So there isn't any place to publish, in a dignified manner, what you actually did in order to get to do the work, although, there has been in these days, some interest in this kind, thing.
— Richard P. Feynman
'The Development of Space-time View of Quantum Electrodynamics', Nobel Lecture, 11 Dec 1965. In Nobel Lectures: Physics 1963-1970 (1972), 155.
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We scientists are clever—too clever—are you not satisfied? Is four square miles in one bomb not enough? Men are still thinking. Just tell us how big you want it!
— Richard P. Feynman
As quoted in James Gleick, Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992), 204.
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What we need is imagination, but imagination in a terrible strait-jacket.
— Richard P. Feynman
In The Character of Physical Law (1965), 171.
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[To a man expecting a scientific proof of the impossibility of flying saucers] I might have said to him: “Listen, I mean that from my knowledge of the world that I see around me, I think that it is much more likely that the reports of flying saucers are the results of the known irrational characteristics of terrestrial intelligence than of the unknown rational efforts of extra-terrestrial intelligence.” It is just more likely, that is all. It is a good guess. And we always try to guess the most likely explanation, keeping in the back of the mind the fact that if it does not work we must discuss the other possibilities.
— Richard P. Feynman
In The Character of Physical Law (1965), 166.
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Quotes by others about Richard P. Feynman (6)

[Richard P.] Feynman's cryptic remark, “no one is that much smarter ...,” to me, implies something Feynman kept emphasizing: that the key to his achievements was not anything “magical” but the right attitude, the focus on nature's reality, the focus on asking the right questions, the willingness to try (and to discard) unconventional answers, the sensitive ear for phoniness, self-deception, bombast, and conventional but unproven assumptions.
In book review of James Gleick's Genius, 'Complexities of Feynman', Science, 259 (22 Jan 1993), 22
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The reason Dick's [Richard Feynman] physics was so hard for ordinary people to grasp was that he did not use equations. The usual theoretical physics was done since the time of Newton was to begin by writing down some equations and then to work hard calculating solutions of the equations. This was the way Hans [Bethe] and Oppy [Oppenheimer] and Julian Schwinger did physics. Dick just wrote down the solutions out of his head without ever writing down the equations. He had a physical picture of the way things happen, and the picture gave him the solutions directly with a minimum of calculation. It was no wonder that people who had spent their lives solving equations were baffled by him. Their minds were analytical; his was pictorial.
Quoted in Michio Kaku and Jennifer Trainer Thompson, Beyond Einstein: the Cosmic Quest for the Theory of the Universe (1987, 1999), 56-57, citing Freeman Dyson, Disturbing the Universe (1979, 1981), 55-56.
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Richard Feynman was fond of giving the following advice on how to be a genius. You have to keep a dozen of your favorite problems constantly present in your mind, although by and large they will lay in a dormant state. Every time you hear or read a new trick or a new result, test it against each of your twelve problems to see whether it helps. Every once in a while there will be a hit, and people will say, “How did he do it? He must be a genius!”
In 'Ten Lessons I Wish I Had Been Taught', Indiscrete Thoughts (2008), 202.
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“Half genius and half buffoon,” Freeman Dyson ... wrote. ... [Richard] Feynman struck him as uproariously American—unbuttoned and burning with physical energy. It took him a while to realize how obsessively his new friend was tunneling into the very bedrock of modern science.
In Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992), Prologue, 4.
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For [Richard] Feynman, the essence of the scientific imagination was a powerful and almost painful rule. What scientists create must match reality. It must match what is already known. Scientific creativity is imagination in a straitjacket.
In Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman (1992), 324.
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Theorists write all the popular books on science: Heinz Pagels, Frank Wilczek, Stephen Hawking, Richard Feynman, et al. And why not? They have all that spare time.
In Leon Lederman and Dick Teresi, The God Particle: If the Universe is the Answer, What is the Question (1993), 15.
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Carl Sagan Thumbnail In science it often happens that scientists say, 'You know that's a really good argument; my position is mistaken,' and then they would actually change their minds and you never hear that old view from them again. They really do it. It doesn't happen as often as it should, because scientists are human and change is sometimes painful. But it happens every day. I cannot recall the last time something like that happened in politics or religion. (1987) -- Carl Sagan
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