Евгений Серебряный
Ph.D. theoretical and mathematical physics
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BRICK, or «ESSENTIAL OBJECT»: from a book of memoirs by the Nobel laureate Richard Phillips Feynman

BRICK, or «ESSENTIAL OBJECT»: from a book of memoirs by the Nobel laureate Richard Phillips Feynman
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Photo: the-tls.co.uk

There are people gifted with creative potential, giving maximum freedom of expression. Usually, they think clearly and articulate and are able to help everyone not only see the truth but also get aesthetic pleasure from meeting it. Such is Richard Phillips Feynman (1918–1988).

He is known as an outstanding teacher and author of the «Feynman Lectures on Physics». After reading the course, you get the feeling that you have been handed such a versatile tool that there is no problem you can’t solve.

And, of course, his sense of humor, love of jokes, and unlimited curiosity are widely known. Huxleў publishes a short excerpt from his book of memoirs, «Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman!», about Feynman, the student’s encounter with an academic group of philosophers.


«In the Graduate College dining room at Princeton everybody used to sit with his own group. I sat with the physicists, but after a bit I thought: It would be nice to see what the rest of the world is doing, so I’ll sit for a week or two in each of the other groups.

When I sat with the philosophers I listened to them discuss very seriously a book called “Process and Reality” by Whitehead. They were using words in a funny way, and I couldn’t quite understand what they were saying. Now I didn’t want to interrupt them in their own conversation and keep asking them to explain something, and on the few occasions that I did, they’d try to explain it to me, but I still didn’t get it. Finally they invited me to come to their seminar.

They had a seminar that was like a class. It had been meeting once a week to discuss a new chapter out of “Process and Reality” some guy would give a report on it and then there would be a discussion. I went to this seminar promising myself to keep my mouth shut, reminding myself that I didn’t know anything about the subject, and I was going there just to watch.

What happened there was typical so typical that it was unbelievable, but true. First of all, I sat there without saying anything, which is almost unbelievable, but also true. A student gave a report on the chapter to be studied that week. In it Whitehead kept using the words “essential object” in a particular technical way that presumably he had defined, but that I didn’t understand.

After some discussion as to what “essential object” meant, the professor leading the seminar said something meant to clarify things and drew something that looked like lightning bolts on the blackboard. “Mr. Feynman”, he said, “would you say an electron is an “essential object”?”

Well, now I was in trouble. I admitted that I hadn’t read the book, so I had no idea of what Whitehead meant by the phrase; I had only come to watch. “But”, I said, “I’ll try to answer the professor’s question if you will first answer a question from me, so I can have a better idea of what “essential object” means. Is a brick an essential object?”

What I had intended to do was to find out whether they thought theoretical constructs were essential objects. The electron is a theory that we use; it is so useful in understanding the way nature works that we can almost call it real. I wanted to make the idea of a theory clear by analogy.

In the case of the brick, my next question was going to be, “What about the inside of the brick?” and I would then point out that no one has ever seen the inside of a brick. Every time you break the brick, you only see the surface. That the brick has an inside is a simple theory which helps us understand things better. The theory of electrons is analogous. So I began by asking, “Is a brick an essential object?”

Then the answers came out. One man stood up and said, “A brick as an individual, specific brick. That is what Whitehead means by an essential object”.

Another man said, “No, it isn’t the individual brick that is an essential object; it’s the general character that all bricks have in common their “brickness” that is the essential object”.

Another guy got up and said, “No, it’s not in the bricks themselves. “Essential object” means the idea in the mind that you get when you think of bricks”.

Another guy got up, and another, and I tell you I have never heard such ingenious different ways of looking at a brick before. And, just like it should in all stories about philosophers, it ended up in complete chaos.

In all their previous discussions they hadn’t even asked themselves whether such a simple object as a brick, much less an electron, is an “essential object”».

BRICK, or «ESSENTIAL OBJECT»: from a book of memoirs by the Nobel laureate Richard Phillips Feynman
Photo: facebook.com


In conclusion, there is irony on the surface about the students not understanding the intricacies of the great British mathematician and philosopher Alfred Whitehead’s (1861–1947) philosophical work «Process and Reality». Their discussion is quite reminiscent of lines from the Russian poet I. Chemnitzer’s (1745–1784) pamphlet «The Metaphysician»: «Rope, what is it? A rope is a simple rope».

Note the profound insight of Feynman, who says that as a physicist he knows that the electron is not a macroscopic world object like a brick. The electron is its wave function, a logical construct related to experimentally observable quantities. And he wanted to ask a tricky question — are such logical constructions essential objects from Whitehead’s point of view? Well, you’ve read what came out.

Personally, I think that Feynman came up with this view of events when he wrote the book in his adulthood. In general, he deliberately inserts erroneous numbers or reasoning here and there in these memoirs of his, trying in his teaching manner to keep the reader on his toes. And it’s excellent!

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