(This story comes from Richard P. Feynman's The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
published by Perseus Books, Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1999. Feynman was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1965. See this Wikipedia article
for more about his life and work.)
We had the Encyclopaedia Britannica
at home and even when I was a small boy [my father] used to sit me on his lap and read to me from the Encyclopaedia Britannica
, and we would read, say, about dinosaurs and maybe it would be talking about the brontosaurus or something, of the tyrannosaurus rex, and it would say something like, "This thing is twenty-five feet high and the head is six feet across," you see, and so he'd stop all this and say, "Let's see what that means. That would mean that if he stood in our front yard he would be high enough to put his head through the window but not quite because the head is a little bit too wide and it would break the window as it came by."
Everything we'd read would be translated as best we could into some reality and so I learned to do that--everything that I read I try to figure out what it really means, what it's really saying by translating and so (LAUGHS) I used to read the Encyclopedia
when I was a boy but with translation, you see, so it was very exciting and interesting to think there were animals of such magnitude--I wasn't frightened that there would be one coming in my window as a consequence of this, I don't think, but I thought that it was very, very interesting, that they all died out and at that time nobody knew why.
We used to go to the Catskill Mountains. We lived in New York and the Catskill Mountains was the place where people went in the summer; and the fathers--there was a big group of people there but the fathers would all go back to New York to work during the week and only come back on the weekends. When my father came he would take me for walks in the woods and tell me various interesting things that were going on in the woods--which I'll explain in a minute--but the other mothers seeing this, of course, thought this was wonderful and that the other fathers should take their sons for walks, and they tried to work on them but they didn't get anywhere at first and they wanted my father to take all the kids, but he didn't want to because he had a special relationship with me--we had a personal thing together--so it ended up that the other fathers had to take their children for walks the next weekend, and the next Monday when they were all back to work, all the kids were playing in the field and one kid said to me, "See that bird, what kind of a bird is that?" And I said, "I haven't the slightest idea what kind of a bird it is." He says, "It's a brown throated thrush," or something, "Your father doesn't tell you anything." But it was the opposite: my father had
taught me. Looking at a bird he says, "Do you know what that bird is? It's a brown throated thrush; but in Portuguese it's a . . . in Italian a . . . ," he says "in Chinese it's a . . . , in Japanese a . . . ," etcetera. "Now," he says, "you know in all the languages you want to know what the name of that bird is and when you've finished with all that," he says, "you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You only know about humans in different places and what they call the bird. Now," he says, "let's look at the bird."
He had taught me to notice things and one day when I was playing with what we call an express wagon, which is a little wagon which has a railing around it for children to play with that they can pull around. It had a ball in it--I remember this--it had a ball in it, and I pulled the wagon and I noticed something about the way the ball moved, so I went to my father and I said, "Say, Pop, I noticed something: When I pull the wagon the ball rolls to the back of the wagon, and when I'm pulling it along and I suddenly stop, the ball rolls to the front of the wagon," and I says,"why is that?" And he said, "That nobody knows," he said. "The general principle is that things that are moving try to keep on moving and things that are standing still tend to stand still unless you push on them hard." And he says, "This tendency is called inertia but nobody knows why it's true." Now that's a deep understanding--he doesn't give me a name, he knew the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something, which I learnt very early. He went on to say, "If you look close you'll find the ball does not rush to the back of the wagon, but it's the back of the wagon that you're pulling against the ball; that the ball stands still or as a matter of fact from the friction starts to move forward really and doesn't move back." So I ran back to the little wagon and set the ball up again and pulled the wagon from under it and looking sideways and seeing indeed he was right--the ball never moved backwards in the wagon when I pulled the wagon forward. It moved backward relative to the wagon, but relative to the sidewalk it was moved forward a little bit, it's just [that] the wagon caught up with it. So that's the way I was educated by my father, with those kinds of examples and discussions, no pressure, just lovely interesting discussions.