Joking with Mr. Feynman (Book Review) and deciding not to decide anymore

Richard Feynman has a quirky voice, adeptly captured by this book. I hope that someday I’ll have a quarter as many good stories as he seems to have. One thing that I truly admire about him is that he is completely open and is always up for a new experience or adventure. My favorite is the one where he wants to volunteer when they tell the student body that a hypnotist will be coming to the university. There are quite a few that are really funny, but this one cracks me up when I imagine it happening.

His approach to life is something that I aspire to. Although I’m not very physics-minded, it was cool to read about the work he’s done and get a glimpse into how his mind works. He always thought of things in practical terms, and especially when thinking about physics problems he would ask for a real life example to work through in his head. He is one of those people who just needs to know how things work, how they actually work. What about the things he has done for the military? He does talk about his time at Los Alamos, but mostly doesn’t go into the details of the physics or the gravity of what the work was.

One of the major concepts I like from him is that of cargo cult science and waiting for something to come that will never land. He explains it by going back to when tribes on desolate islands would be visited by cargo planes full of supplies and things they needed. The people would then become taken by the idea that some cargo plane will again come and give them what they need. So they wait around, build landing strips, for a plane that is not coming.

Deciding not to decide anymore

There is a part of the book that talks about when he was trying to decide between staying at Cornell or going to Caltech. The snow in Ithaca made him want to go to Caltech, and then there were some air pollution issues that made him think about going back to Cornell. Then he was stopped by some colleagues on campus who told him about their newest discoveries. He realized he wanted that type of environment where he could walk around and hear about all the different cool discoveries in other fields, and he decided would just stop deciding and stay at Caltech.

Reading this was great because I’m currently feeling a bit sheepish for going back on my plan to not do a PhD program. I’m deciding not to decide anymore about whether I want to do a PhD or not. It isn’t the years of hard work that I’m wary of, because anything I do I would want to work hard at it. It is the academic situation that I’m wary of (and lack of jobs on the traditional path following PhDs, but maybe I’m just not on a traditional path anymore anyway). What I will do is follow paths that feel right to me, and that lead to more interesting things. So, PhD programs in USA don’t feel right to me, at least not now. But, this other new opportunity does feel right to me. I would get to do interesting work, learn new skills, and do some living and traveling abroad. And no need to feel any anxiety, I don’t have to feel like I’m signing myself up for a life in academia, because only those who really want them get academic jobs and there are options outside of academia. I’m putting to rest these thoughts and just going to focus on what lies ahead.

In any case, Feynman definitely has had an interesting life and has inspired me to go out and do the things that I’ve been thinking about doing (like living abroad, and throwing myself into learning new skills)! I’ll go where curiosity takes me, and if this PhD position makes that possible, then so be it!

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2 Responses

  1. Chia-Yi says

    If only the future us could come and tell us what to do! I know everyone has a different situation, but I wonder what are in the minds of people entering and leaving PhD programs now. Am I being stupid to think it’ll happen the way I’m expecting it to?

  2. Nat says

    You can’t go wrong taking a cue from Feynman. I’ve been having a lot of (somewhat similar) mixed up feelings about my future lately as well… I need to give it some good thought and maybe spend some time reading Feynman and Sagan to see how they might approach these things.