Two things I learned about active open-mindedness and asking questions from Richard Feynman

On February 6, 1975, Feynman gave a talk at the First Annual Santa Barbara Lectures on Science and Society, at the University of California at Santa Barbara.

His talk was one of nine lectures in the series “Reminiscences of Los Alamos, 1943-1945” based on the work of the Manhattan Project.

Two takeaways:

First, Feyman demonstrates the ‘greatness’ and active-open mindedness of the members on the committee – and their ability to retain information, and change their point of view when new information was presented:

One of the first interesting experiences I had in this project at Princeton was meeting great men. I had never met very many great men before. But there was an evaluation committee that had to try to help us along, and help us ultimately decide which way we were going to separate the uranium. This committee had men like Compton and Tolman and Smyth and Urey and Rabi and Oppenheimer on it. I would sit in because I understood the theory of the process of what we were doing, and so they’d ask me questions and talk about it. In these discussions one man would make a point. Then Compton, for example, would explain a different point of view. He would say it should be this way, and he would be perfectly right. Another guy would say, well, maybe, but there’s this other possibility we have to consider against it.

I’m jumping! Compton should say it again! So everybody is disagreeing, all around the table. Finally, at the end, Tolman, who’s the chairman, would say, “Well, having heard all these arguments, I guess it’s true that Compton’s argument is the best of all, and now we have to go ahead.”

It was such a shock to me to see that a committee of men could present a whole lot of ideas, each one thinking of a new facet, while remembering what the other fellow said, so that, at the end, the decision is made as to which idea was the best – summing it all up without having to say it three times. So that was a shock. These were very great men indeed.

Second, he asked questions to challenge ideas. It advanced the thinking of those around him.

Every day I would study and read, study and read. It was a very hectic time. But I had some luck. All the big shots except for Hans Bethe happened to be away at the time, and what Bethe needed was someone to talk to, to push his ideas against. Well, he comes in to this little squirt in an office and starts to argue, explaining his idea. I say, “No, no, you’re crazy. It’ll go like this.” And he says, “Just a moment, “ and explains how he’s not crazy, I’m crazy. And we keep on going like this. You see, when I hear about physics, I just think about physics, and I don’t know who I’m talking to, so I say dopey things like, “No, no, you’re wrong, “ or “You’re crazy.” But it turned out that’s exactly what he needed. I got a notch up on account of that, and I ended up as a group leader under Bethe with four guys under me.

Full transcript at Caltech Library.