Knowing and Understanding

- What I cannot create, I do not understand.

- Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

- What I cannot create, I do not understand.

- Science is a way of trying not to fool yourself. The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool.

Imagination is integral to intelligence. They aren't mutually exclusive; you can't have one without the other. This isn't intuitive to many, but ask any scientist (and especially physicists) and most every one will tell you imagination is the key to scientific breakthroughs.

Consider the case of Richard Feynman, Nobel Laureate in Physics, a key contributor to the Manhattan Project, and an all around strange guy. Mr. Feynman was a true trickster, he loved practical jokes and played them often on others to amuse himself. He played the Bongos at Carnival in South America; he would work out astoundingly complex mathematical concepts while sipping 7-Up at strip bars amidst blaring music; and he became a master lock-picker and safe-cracker just for the fun of it. He was weird. And being weird was beautiful—it broke him free of conventional thinking into new territories of knowledge.

Feynman was famous for his ability to innovate and create new concepts no one had ever before considered, and yet at the same time render them easily comprehensible and strikingly simple in his explanations.

- We can't define anything precisely. If we attempt to, we get into that paralysis of thought that comes to philosophers…one saying to the other: "you don't know what you are talking about!" The second one says: "what do you mean by talking? What do you mean by you? What do you mean by know?"

The key is to truly understand a concept. According to Feynman, most people just memorize data by rote or find that an equation works or an axiom holds and that's it. They never question it or see how it really works. But that's not even half the battle for achieving true intelligence.

- There are all kinds of interesting questions that come from a knowledge of science, which only adds to the excitement and mystery and awe of a flower. It only adds. I don't understand how it subtracts.

The true key to knowledge is understanding how something works down to its very core. All the "whys" of life. You can't just know, you have to understand. You've got to be curious and investigate down to the very core of what you're doing.

- You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing — that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

Feynman was famous for destroying a fellow physicist's work by simply making observations. He'd listen in on long lectures about supposed "theoretical breakthroughs" and sometimes just start laughing out loud at how ridiculous it all was in the quiet of the lecture hall!

He could see theoretical problems very easily because he constantly envisioned practical and real examples of the mathematics and theory being explained. To his astonishment, most physicists paid attention only to math and theory, and never the reality! If someone told him that the math worked for a theory, he did thought experiments to see if it would work in practice. Often, he found that it didn't.

- It doesn't matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn't matter how smart you are. If it doesn't agree with experiment, it's wrong.

It's all about imagination and seeing things differently. Our brains aren't constructed to do physics or math or capital markets. We have to think about things in ways that our brains will comprehend to find the truth.

Nowhere is this idea more imperative than with investing. By definition, in order to beat the markets you have to know something others don't. You have to use all the vast amounts of data and information to think differently, see things differently, and be scientific in realizing much of what you might believe could actually be false. Convention won't allow for success.

- A poet once said "The whole universe is in a glass of wine." We will probably never know in what sense he meant that, for poets do not write to be understood. But it is true that if we look at a glass closely enough we see the entire universe. There are the things of physics: the twisting liquid which evaporates depending on the wind and weather, the reflections in the glass, and our imaginations adds the atoms. The glass is a distillation of the Earth's rocks, and in its composition we see the secret of the universe's age, and the evolution of the stars. What strange array of chemicals are there in the wine? How did they come to be? There are the ferments, the enzymes, the substrates, and the products. There in wine is found the great generalization: all life is fermentation. Nobody can discover the chemistry of wine without discovering, as did Louis Pasteur, the cause of much disease. How vivid is the claret, pressing its existence into the consciousness that watches it! If our small minds, for some convenience, divide this glass of wine, this universe, into parts — physics, biology, geology, astronomy, psychology, and so on — remember that Nature does not know it! So let us put it all back together, not forgetting ultimately what it is for. Let it give us one more final pleasure: drink it and forget it all!

For more on Richard Feynman, much of his life and writings are available online.

Have a great weekend.


All quotes by Richard P. Feynman.

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*The content contained in this article represents only the opinions and viewpoints of the Fisher Investments editorial staff.