“My mother taught me that the highest forms of understanding that we can achieve are laughter, and human compassion.” —Richard Feynman
“My mother taught me that the highest forms of understanding that we can achieve are laughter, and human compassion.”
In his early childhood, while on a walk with his father, Richard Feynman noticed the strange behavior of the ball left lying in his little wagon. When he pulled the wagon forward, the ball rolled to the back of the wagon, then when the wagon stopped, the ball rolled to the front. He asked his father, Melville Feynman, why this happened, and got this reply:
"That, nobody knows. The general principle is that things which are moving tend to keep on moving and things which are standing still tend to stand still, unless you push them hard. This tendency is called ‘inertia’, but nobody knows why it’s true."
Intriguingly, this answer on ’inertia’ was just one of the ’pushes’ that made Richard Feynman one of the world’s most outstanding scientists. He won the Nobel Prize in Physics for his first major contribution to science; he was one of the leaders of the team that worked on the Manhattan Project, to develop the atomic bomb; he was called to be part of the team of scientists who worked to discover the cause of the Challenger disaster in 1986; and he was, above all, a great teacher.
Melville inspired his son’s interest in science in many non-assuming ways. But Richard was never unaware of his mother’s ‘pushes’ in his life. Lucille Feynman was the ’push’ that caused Richard to integrate the ‘human’ side of life into his unique way of thinking about the world—it was obviously a unusual combination for a physicist. But because of his mother, Richard was also known for his outrageous wit in story telling and for playing the bongos.
Not many of us will win a Nobel Prize, but we are all fortunate enough to look back and know what ‘pushed’ us forward when we were standing still. Or perhaps what stopped us from going in the wrong direction and nudged us toward the laughter in your life.
You never know, even if none of us aspire to be a Richard Feynman, we can all aspire the be a Melville or a Lucille—–and ’push’ a child in the right direction.
(Interestingly enough, one of Richard Feynman’s own insights into the nature of the world now provides us with one way of explaining what inertia ‘really is’. But we'll save that for another time.)