Physics, UC Berkeley
An interviewer asks Richard Feynman how magnets work. This seems like a perfectly reasonable question to ask of a scientist who won the Nobel prize for his work on quantum electrodynamics. But Feynman launches into a long rant that does everything, I suppose, but explain how magnets work.
You might say that Feynman is being a bit rude or mean to this interviewer, but at the same time, his rant gets to the heart of what science is and Feynman’s approach to it. Magnetism is both simple and complex, as Feynman explains. It is simple in that the electromagnetic force is one of the four fundamental forces of nature. It is simply a fact of the universe, in fact one of the simplest facts, that the electrodynamic force exists. At the same time, physicists have spent millions of man-hours learning exactly how the force works, to a high degree of accuracy, but this can’t be explained to a layman:
If you’re somebody who doesn’t know anything about [physics], all I can say is that there’s a magnetic force that makes [magnets] repel. And that you’re feeling that force. But then you say, “That’s very strange, because I don’t feel a force like that in other circumstances.” When you turn them the other way, they attract. There’s a very analogous force, the electrical force, which is the same kind of a question. Then you say, “that’s also very weird.” But you’re not at all disturbed by the fact that when you put your hand on the chair, it pushes you back. But we found out by looking at it that that’s the same force as a matter of fact—the electrical force, not the magnetic exactly in that case—but it’s the same electric repulsions that are involved in keeping your finger away from the chair…
I can’t explain that in terms of anything else that’s familiar to you. For example if we say the magnets attract like as if they were connected by rubber bands, I would be cheating you. Because they’re not connected by rubber bands, I shouldn’t be in trouble. You’d soon ask me about the nature of the bands, and secondly, if you were curious enough you’d ask me why rubber bands tend to pull back together again and I would end up explaining that in terms of electrical forces, which are the very things I’m trying to use the rubber bands to explain, so I’ve cheated very badly, you see.
Feynman is all about how you can always ask deeper, more interesting why? questions. And you can dumb down science by making analogies, but chances are if you keep asking why? eventually the analogies will break down as begging the question: to explain the analogies, you need to use the very concepts which the analogies were supposed to explain the first place.
This video displays some of Feynman’s charisma. He was a very funny guy, as anyone who has read Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! knows. Definitely check out that book if you haven’t read it. It’s not a scientific book, it’s more a series of humorous anecdotes from his life, but they provide a glimpse into the mind of one of the great scientists of the 20th century. And it’s very funny in a way that both nerds and non-nerds can appreciate.
THERE IS A story about two friends, who were classmates in high school, talking about their jobs. One of them became a statistician and was working on population trends. He showed a reprint to his former classmate. The reprint started, as usual, with the Gaussian distribution and the statistician explained to his former classmate the meaning of the symbols for the actual population, for the average population, and so on. His classmate was a bit incredulous and was not quite sure whether the statistician was pulling his leg. “How can you know that?” was his query. “And what is this symbol here?” “Oh,” said the statistician, “this is pi.” “What is that?” “The ratio of the circumference of the circle to its diameter.” “Well, now you are pushing your joke too far,” said the classmate, “surely the population has nothing to do with the circumference of the circle.”Eugene Wigner - The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences
The two postulates of special relativity;
The law of conservation of energy;
The Newtonian approximation E ≅ E0 + (1/2)m|v|^2 at low velocities.
Rosencrantz & Guildenstern (Newtonian Physics) (by SCODgreenhood)
One of the several scenes where Rosencrantz discovers a principle of classical mechanics, only to be foiled when trying to demonstrate to Guildenstern. As a physicist, these were really fun little Easter eggs that I noticed upon first watching.