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Richard Feynman: “Fiddling around is the answer”

Via Eric Gilliam‘s excellent FreakTakes.

I got to Princeton, and the first thing, when I was there and I went to the physics building, I asked immediately, “I want to see the cyclotron” — because I was very excited. And they said to go down in the basement and the room down at the end of the basement — which seemed to me incredible, stuffed away… Anyway, I went down in the basement, and I walked into the room where the cyclotron was, at the end of the basement. And it wasn’t 15 seconds before I understood why the Princeton cyclotron had lots of results, why Slater had told me to go to another school — I understood the whole thing.

The whole mirage, the whole idealism of MIT collapsed. Because I recognized something in that room, which was the same as in my laboratory at home. The cyclotron was in the middle of the room. There were wires all over the place, hanging in the air, just strung up by somebody. There were water things — there had to be automatic water coolers, and little switches, so if the water stopped it would automatically go on, and there were some kind of pipes and you could see, you know, water dripping. There was wax all over the place, hanging, where they were fixing leaks. The room was full of cans of film at crazy angles on tables. You see, completely different than at MIT.

A place where somebody was working! Where the guy who was working was close to the machine, could fix it with his own hands. It was not in an insulated box with knobs. I understood it immediately, because I’d had this experience in laboratory. It looked like my kid laboratory, where I had everything all over the place and the tools were put down where I last had ‘em. And I realized that this was really research, and that I had been fooled — that good engineering design is what they had at MIT, in a kind of abstract way, but not the real work with the machine, that they were separated from it. I understood it very quickly, as soon as I saw the machine.I loved it. I knew I was in the right place. They were guys of the old — the way I had felt when I was a kid.

Fiddling is the answer. Experimenting is fiddling around. It’s not an organized program, elegance — it’s impossible. I noticed it. I mean, I realized right away that Slater was right. I had thought that was the best school in the world, and here was a thing I’d imagined must be three times as great, ten times as large, and four times as elegant, in order to get that much more research. But as a matter of fact, it was smaller and completely inelegant, and that was the secret. So I loved Princeton right away.

Richard Feynman, from Eric Gilliam‘s FreakTakes: Four fun anecdotes from the Feynman Oral Histories

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