Why Richard Feynman can't tell you how magnets work

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98 Responses to “Why Richard Feynman can't tell you how magnets work”

  1. Anonymous says:

    When lawyers and scientists merge.

  2. Anonymous says:

    So he’s basically referring to the 4 “givens” in physics known as the fundamental interactions:

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fundamental_interaction

    Those four things just are what they are.

  3. abulafia says:

    Surprising that so many people missed the wit of his answer, and so found it to be long-winded and unsatisfactory.

    He was giving the interviewer a masterclass in critical thinking. I had a couple of these 10 years ago from my own Prof.

    The masterclass is in framing the correct question. Not being lazy with language, because science needs the correct question to arrive at the correct answer.

    If the interviewer had asked ‘How do magnets repel or attract each other?’ (And not ‘Why’) he’d have had a different answer, you can be sure. You can even sense the interviewers difficulty in framing the question. Feynman doesn’t make it easy for him either, he’s probably had the question so many times from undergrads.

    Feynman seems to be saying that understanding things isn’t always easy, you have to put the work in and study. If you can’t/won’t, then there is no answer, you just have to trust the people who know.

    What a consumate scientist and educator!

    Dream team science dinner party: Sagan, Feynman, Venter and Dawkins. Attenborough for his voice and general nice-guy pleasantness.

    • Anonymous says:

      Next time my boss asks me if I’ll make a deadline, I’ll dodge the question, and instead, give him a masterclass in critical thinking.

      Actually, that sounds kinda like a Dilbert cartoon. :)

    • Anonymous says:

      Understanding things isn’t always easy… aka

      There is no Royal Road to Geometry.

  4. Anonymous says:

    “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
    — Albert Einstein

  5. Anonymous says:

    Am I imagining it or at 0:33 when the interviewer asks “Why” Feynman’s eyes get bigger? heh.

  6. AnthonyC says:

    For electromagnets, my electromagnetism textbook essentially gives this answer: currents are moving charges. Moving objects experience relativistic effects: in order for the speed of light to be the same for all observers, there must be length contraction, to the normally-spherically-symmetric electric field of an electron becomes “squashed” in the direction of the current. Then the laws governing electric charges pop out magnetism. In the rest frame of the current, there is no magnetic force needed to describe the system.

    This doesn’t explain ferromagnetism, though. And really, it just reduces one proposition (magnets work) to another (the speed of light is the same for all observers, and electric charges obey Maxwell’s equations). That’s really what physics does: measure stuff, then say “This appears to be how the universe operates, within experimental error.”

  7. Brainspore says:

    “When a magnet and a ferrous mineral love each other very much…”

  8. Wardish says:

    Back to the original question.

    He said that lining up the electron spins magnifies the electrical positive/negative attraction/repulsion force.

    Is it actually magnified or is it additive?

    Getting into territory I don’t know now.

    Can the spin of an electron have a speed? If so can you change the speed of the spin?

    Gotta admit I do enjoy when stuff makes me start thinking of new questions. Just wish I had more answers.

    Ultimate goal in the universe. Knowing how much I don’t know.

    • Ugly Canuck says:

      Too small for a “speed”: spin has only a direction, IIRC.
      You can reverse it, also IIRC.
      I think it’s integral, but maybe it can vary.
      EG only +1 or -1: no fractions, but i could be wrong.

      That is, spin has a direction, but no variable magnitude, when it comes to sub-atomic “spin”.

      Careful not to let the “large-scale” physicality implied by the metaphors used for the measures mislead you. These are specks of what’s next to nothingness, which are being discussed.

      • Wardish says:

        I suspected as much about spin but being wrong doesn’t bother me.

        As to the charge, assuming *grin* I’m right, I believe some of the interesting smaller particles have fractional charges. Just a sec and I’ll check.

        Interesting, should have looked this up before.

        All fermions have half integer spin, 1/2 for all known.

        12 types of fermions, 6 quarks and 6 leptons.
        *chuckle* then it starts to get really weird.
        Quarks have either +1/3 or +2/3 charge, antiparticles are negative. Up, down, charm, strange, top, bottom and,… ok I’m officially lost.

        Hehehe, makes my brain go Ahhhh, clunk. Since when did monkey wrench’s come in colors.

        BTW, starting source was Wikipedia and follow the references.

      • Anonymous says:

        Spin has a direction and variable magnitude, but has to be a half-integer: 0, 1/2, 1, 3/2, and so on. It’s a type of angular momentum, which usually has to do with orbital speed, but things like electrons have some just by virtue of existing. It really has something to do with rotational symmetry.

        If you think about an orbiting electron as a wave, it will have a certain number of crests and troughs in each cycle. Just as momentum turns out to related to wavelength, angular momentum relates to how many of those oscillations happen in a 360-degree turn.

        When something has its own spin, it means it also changes when you look at it from different angles. For you need to rotate a vector by 360 degrees before it looks the same, just like an orbit with one crest and trough, so something described by a vector would have an inherent angular momentum of 1.

        I can’t tell you why these things might attract, though. At some point you really do have to just ask “why not”?

        • Ugly Canuck says:

          Thank you – it has been a long time since I’ve done any physics!

          But not yet too long, to be truthful.

        • knappa says:

          I forget exactly how physicists think of spin – I think that it is something to do with the eigenvalues of the Dirac operator. i.e. the standard particles are all eigenvectors and the spectrum is real and discrete. I forget exactly.

          For me, anyway, the closely related idea of spin from mathematics is much easier to see. Hold a mug in your hand. Rotate it a full 360 degrees without letting go. Your arm will be twisted in an odd way. Rotate it 360 degrees again. Your arm will be untwisted. That’s what spin is. (Technically it is the fact that when n>2, SO(n) admits a universal 2-fold cover: Spin(n). With the mug, you saw that you have to go around twice in the cover to get back.)

      • Ugly Canuck says:

        I meant “fuzzy specks”, in the above.

  9. Anonymous says:

    To those saying Feynman didn’t say anything, or was rude, or isn’t a good teacher, you obviously missed the point entirely.

    There is no way anyone can explain something like “why” magnets push and pull each other (and certain other materials) at a distance. It’s not so easy.

    The mathematics is beyond anything that 99% of the people on this Earth, and 99.99999% of the people posting here are capable of. You can’t understand Nature without a solid understanding of mathematics far beyond “simple” Calculus. Nobody could explain the “why” of magnets in a single 16 week course, let alone a few minutes on some interview.

    That was the point of his answer, lost on too many people.

  10. Neo Displacer says:

    Everyone knows it’s turtles all the way down!

  11. penguinchris says:

    I thought it was brilliant! I can see why people would think he’s being an asshole, but you can tell he’s not actually trying to put down the interviewer or anything – he’s having a bit of fun and giving the interviewer (and us) an unexpected lesson in critical thinking.

    As a TA in grad school I taught a geology 101 lab class. Most students weren’t too inquisitive – I fairly rarely had interesting questions from them. So, I did much the same thing Feynman does here (though nowhere near as well) – I’d try to turn every mundane question into a much more interesting one, and give the students way more than they were expecting with my answers. Of course, considering the circumstances in most cases I would lead them to a clear answer eventually.

    Frankly I didn’t care if they learned geology (and I told them this) – I had only two geology (or other science) majors out of about 200 students I taught in total – I cared if they learned how to think critically, since that’s so rarely taught.

  12. airshowfan says:

    This video is, indeed, a wonderful thing. On a couple of occasions I have stayed up waaay past my bedtime watching online videos of Feynman.

    It’s funny to compare the Feynman video above, with this…
    http://tinyurl.com/StephenMcneilWhy
    … and to compare that, in turn, with this:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4u2ZsoYWwJA#t=7m53s

    Comment #20 quotes Feynman saying “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something”. That, too, has a nice YouTube video to go along with it:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srSbAazoOr8#t=5m17s
    Here’s the whole thing:
    http://video.google.com/videoplay?docid=7136440703094429927#

    I like it how comment #48 points out that “science doesn’t and never really has answered ‘why’, only ‘how’.“… The problem is, in everyday language, “How” questions are often worded with “Why”, which adds an undue teleological connotation to unguided, uncaring, unplanned, non-deliberate mechanical/natural processes. When a little kid asks WHY clouds form, I don’t think the question is “Who wanted clouds to form? Towards what ENDS do clouds form?”. As an atheist, I do dislike it when people expect purpose in natural/random phenomena (since that feels to me like an unreasonable expectation that can only be fulfilled by a God), but I also dislike it when people THINK that certain questions expect purpose when they in fact do not.

    I think the best comment was #40 by abulafia:Feynman seems to be saying that understanding things isn’t always easy, you have to put the work in and study. If you can’t/won’t, then there is no answer, you just have to trust the people who know. I couldn’t have said it better.

    And I LOLed at comments 79-80-81 :]

  13. fnc says:

    I thought his answer that it’s an amplification of electrostatic(?) repulsion was pretty satisfying. I could not have told someone that before watching that interview.

    But he made a good point in that if you want to go any further towards understanding those forces you have to leave the macro world behind.

  14. Anonymous says:

    HEAT, people.
    The answer is HEAT.

    (assuming permanent non-elctro magnets.)

  15. Anonymous says:

    In addition to being an exercise in critical thinking (and precision of language) for the interviewer, his response also demolishes the recurring platitude “science answers how, religion answers why”.

  16. Anonymous says:

    He could have just written out a page of equations.

  17. Anonymous says:

    “It’s interesting how much faith we put into the physical world’s apparent observable properties, and the symbolic logic we made up to go along with it, without much knowledge as to what even happens before the ‘object level’”

    How could we possibly tell, from within the system, why the system really is the way it is?

    I mean, why is there anything? I don’t know. Nobody knows why the universe is here. Science doesn’t even try to answer the question; even the “big bang” theory only tells us *what* happened when it came into existence. It’s here because it’s here, unless it isn’t, and we’re all inhabiting the dreams of something larger and unimaginably complex…

    But, yes, this is the faith of science: that the world is observable and predictable, and experiments are repeatable; just like the faith of math and logic is that they are internally consistent.

    That faith isn’t unfounded, science and math earned their following. They produced technology, and technology is the only miracle engine that’s ever worked reliably.

    I suppose if you’ve never considered metaphysics much this is surprising, but science doesn’t and never really has answered “why”, only “how”: how does the world behave, given these circumstances? Sometimes you can use the “how” model to make a guess at “why”, in the terms used by the model, something happens the way it does; but it doesn’t give you a fundamental reason.

    Science can’t give the world purpose.

    • conflator says:

      I mean, why is there anything? I don’t know. Nobody knows why the universe is here. Science doesn’t even try to answer the question; even the “big bang” theory only tells us *what* happened when it came into existence. It’s here because it’s here, unless it isn’t, and we’re all inhabiting the dreams of something larger and unimaginably complex…

      “Why” is a relatively meaningless question. As Feynman pointed out, it only contains meaning within an agreed upon framework. It pre-supposes a cause about which we have apriori knowledge. “What (is the mechanism that…)” is much more interesting and leads to actual knowledge. Answers to “why” can only depend on knowing another, deeper mechanism.

      But, yes, this is the faith of science: that the world is observable and predictable, and experiments are repeatable; just like the faith of math and logic is that they are internally consistent.

      Neither of these are taken on faith. Whether all frames of reference are symmetrical is a question for science with profound consequences. And Russell and Whitehead tried to prove that mathematical systems are internally consistent. Even though they ran into trouble with Kurt Godel, it would be wrong to say that the internal consistency of mathematic and logical systems is taken for granted.

      The whole point of these fields is that fundamental questions like this aren’t taken on faith.

    • littlebrother says:

      But, yes, this is the faith of science: that the world is observable and predictable, and experiments are repeatable; just like the faith of math and logic is that they are internally consistent.

      That faith isn’t unfounded, science and math earned their following. They produced technology, and technology is the only miracle engine that’s ever worked reliably.

      I suppose if you’ve never considered metaphysics much this is surprising, but science doesn’t and never really has answered “why”, only “how”: how does the world behave, given these circumstances? Sometimes you can use the “how” model to make a guess at “why”, in the terms used by the model, something happens the way it does; but it doesn’t give you a fundamental reason.

      Science can’t give the world purpose.

      Nope.

      Sorry, you are attempting to paint a discipline of inquiry and testing with the excuses that a “discipline” that has no paths of inquiry or testing, (merely lists of statements that cannot be questioned) uses to prevent objection.

      This below is a phoney example quote:

      “Science is just like rainbow farting unicorn wishes because science just asks for things too.. like can I have a heart transplant, because we all just ask the doctor for a good heart, and I just ask the rainbow farting unicorn! See its the same.”

  18. grimapples says:

    The “Seriously, how do _________ work?” meme can’t be far off, can it?

    Somebody, please, help us.

  19. Bill Beaty says:

    If, in dry weather, you rub a balloon upon your hair, it sticks to your head, right? OK, now just use equal opposite charges to cancel out the charges that are there. Then spin those extra charges at the speed of light, but leave the original ones as is. Bingo, the balloon still sticks to your head, but now it’s because of magnetism.

    So that solves that. Now you just need to explain why rubbed balloons stick to your head.

  20. Jason Rizos says:

    This is a very interesting ontological discussion in general. All manners of “taken for granted” operate in conversation, to degrees and we are stuck deciding what is in need of “explaining” and what is not. Through this process of exclusion, we hope to arrive at something with nuance and intrigue. Like Dr. Fenyman does.

  21. drmuerto says:

    This scientist may not be lying, but his answer is getting me pissed.

    • littlebrother says:

      Why does it make you angry? Do you expect a simple answer? And he is avoiding telling you that answer? He coukld just say “it is because metals of this type have a ——– force and it goes in one direction”

      is that it?

    • Anonymous says:

      No way, don’t be pissed at Dr. F! A lot of lesser experts would spout some authoritative gobbledygook in a smug I’m-smarter-than-you-now-shut-up kind of way. You see that all the time in the media. But to Dr. F, science was not about experts and authority, it was about finding things out for yourself (not necessarily *by* yourself at all). Here, he’s refusing to give a bullshit explanation that would mean nothing. He’s *not* telling the interviewer he can’t know for himself, just that it can’t be done in a sound bite. That is showing the interviewer some respect.

  22. Gregory Goldmacher says:

    The most fundamental forces in the universe are hard to understand and explain, precisely because they’re fundamental. In Newtonian terms, a body in motion remain in motion. We call this inertia, but why does it happen? Just because we give it a name does not mean we understand it.

    • littlebrother says:

      And because we haven’t unravelled the particles yet, or drawn complete pictures for ourselves of the particles, or even exposed what part of particles are particulate. They have recently, in tha last few weeks, that a previously thought of as zero mass particle, may actually have a near zero mass, which is effing huge, because near zero times quadrillions, or septillions or (really much much larger) etc. is a lot. Such a big number that it may explain a large fraction of what we thought of as hidden “dark matter” and that is a big deal indeed.

    • Ugly Canuck says:

      Perhaps not: but we recognize it, nonetheless.

      That counts for something, eh?

  23. GIFtheory says:

    One might think of all materials as being composed of tiny magnets created by the spin of electrons. For various reasons, these tiny magnets cancel each other out in many materials. In ferromagnetic materials, however, the tiny magnets align, creating a net magnetic field.

    FEYNMAN FAIL!

  24. Church says:

    Copyright. How does it work?!

  25. the_headless_rabbit says:

    I’ve listened to 4 of Feynman’s books as audiobooks, one of which did not alter or edit Feynman’s speech in any way. I thought I had an idea of what he would sound like, but I was surprised by his accent in this video. He sounds more like a gangster than physicist. Now I love him even more.

    • Anonymous says:

      He sounds more like a gangster than physicist.

      Only if your gangsters grew up in the Jewish part of Queens in the 1920s…

  26. ili says:

    Allow me to paraphrase his answer: “They just DO, dumbass.”

  27. catgrin says:

    Congrats to those who realized that this was a critical thinking exercise. Basically, the first question the interviewer asks is ridiculously open-ended, “What is it, the feeling between those two magnets?”

    That could be interpreted to mean any number of things: what stimulates your nervous response? how does your nervous response work that you have a feeling? what is that unique sensation caused by? why do magnets make this mysterious invisible tug? and so on… Which is the reason Feynman goes apparently off-topic in his discussion about the lady’s trip to the hospital. He’s trying to let the interviewer see the problem with the wording of his question.

    The interviewer never said (as some here interpreted), “How does a magnet work?” or anything of the sort. Feynman was right to let a person whose job is to ask directed, well-crafted questions, know that he’d failed.

    After he got past that, this was also about the inability to explain without agreed upon frameworks. Anon #47 was right, and that’s the problem. It would have been easiest for a clear explanation to write out equations, not answer in common english, and how would that have cleared anything up for the interviewer? I think he did his best to point out the difficulties in answering seemingly “simple” questions when trying to avoid analogies.

  28. semiotix says:

    He’s actually wrong about why ice is slippery, but that’s understandable since he’s giving the accepted theory at the time. I.e., that pressure on ice melts a thin layer of it into water that you slide on, which instantly refreezes after the pressure is removed.

    Nowadays “they” say that it’s a function of the edges of ice crystals not coming together in perfect hexagonal lattices, leaving stray tendrils of loosely bound molecules that are the actual “surface” over which things slide. And thus your shoe stays further away from most of the solid body of the ice, hence less van der Waals forces, hence less friction, hence more slippery.

    Lookit me, smarter than Feynman! WHOOOOO!

    • Anonymous says:

      Something seems weird there. If it were just a matter of imperfect crystals, you’d expect to see the same thing with other surfaces, but ice is slipperier than most solids you run into. For that matter, if stray tendrils really reduced friction, you would almost expect smoother surfaces to be stickier. Do you have any more information about this?

      • MacD says:

        You’re switching two things around. “Smoother” surfaces are smooth because you can slide stuff on them. They have the same surface structural formations as ice. We call those things smooth because they are not sticky, because they have that effect that they create low friction with other materials.

        To paraphrase, your question isn’t even wrong. You’re asking “Water is wet, because of the reason you listed. But if that’s the case, why are other liquids wet? I’d expect them to be dry!”.

  29. rpink says:

    He’s the type of guy I’d love to chat with at a party, but after 5 minutes I’d be daydreaming about fantasy football or monkeys or something.

  30. Anonymous says:

    Yes I applauded loudly because I loved this message so much I wanted more people to listen to it, come one come all lets all go listen to Feynamn, Sagan and all that came before. These are the giants.

  31. abulafia says:

    If anyone is remotely interested in physics for the layman, I’d recommend John Gribbin’s book ‘Schroedinger’s Cat

    http://tinyurl.com/32s3yx8

    It’s a book that shows you how funny physicists are by giving electrons flavours, spin, colo(u)r etc. It’s not dry at all. It’s a fun read.

    Nothing I’ve seen or read by Feynman indicates that he is intolerant of anyone who wants to learn, it’s just that I think the interviewer was making a basic mistake in asking why.

    In response to ‘anon’ (sigh)

    “If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t understand it yourself.”
    — Albert Einstein

    regarding explaining things to a six year old; yes, if he was talking to a 6 year old, it wouldn’t be a problem. But to a 26-36 or 46 year-old, it becomes a problem because of the ridiculous assumptions adults make about the real world. Children have no preconceptions, just questions and a sense of wonder.

    That was me at 6 years old onwards, always questions. Now I can call bullshit whenever I recognise it. Sometimes upsets horoscope readers and crystal clutchers, but hey, wtf.

    Srsly, if you know nothing about physic, but are interested, Gribbin’s book is great. Anyone else have any recommendations for basic physics/chemistry/genetics books they want to mention?

    oh, and I am NOT John Gribbin :)

  32. weatherman says:

    Wow. I’m a fan of Feynman’s writings, but that answer was complete nonsense clearly meant to humiliate or confuse the interviewer. It took him six minutes of obfuscation in the guise of philosophical inquiry to arrive at even the most basic answer. That’s pretty typical of a person who either has limited knowledge of what they’re trying to explain, or someone who doesn’t really want to explain something at all, but not what I would expect from Feynman.

    • littlebrother says:

      No. he was not trying to humiliate the interviewer or us the tv (sic) viewers.

      he was explaining that making an explaination was different from understanding, that learning was not “being told” a sentence that you memorize, he was explaining science and the methodology of unearthing truths from difficulties.

      The interviewer wasn’t asking “is it magnetism” he was asking how can one explain the forces we call magnetism, the bigger question. \

      As in: What is force at a distance?

    • Anonymous says:

      Weatherman, how would you answer that question without relying on jargon or terminology otherwise meaningless to the interviewer? This is pretty much the only “day-to-day” question that Feynman ever answered like this other than “what is inertia”. Both concepts are not simple to explain in lay terms (though they are simple to describe). He was honest about that.

  33. Loafer says:

    My 3 year old can tell you just how complicated things can get with the ‘why’ questions.
    I answer as best I can but he usually glazes over when I talk about rainbows as refracted light etc.

  34. Anonymous says:

    I don’t know about not explaining it. He sounds like he’s pissed off with the questioner and is being abtuse.

    But in the middle of all that there is actually a fairly reasonable laypersons explanation. You can’t put your hand through the chair because of electrostatic repulsion, but in iron – when it’s magnetized – the electrons all “line up” so the force from each one is going in the same “direction” (spin actually) and so the force adds up and extends further into the space around the metal.

    But he’s right, once you get to that point, you’d then ask why/how do they all line up and why doesn’t it happen in (say) non-metals and then he’d be in trouble and have to talk about spin, relativity, etc, etc. It does get pretty hard, because it gets pretty deep quite quickly

  35. Anonymous says:

    Why? Because he should have said there is a North and South Pole in magnets and should have just given that answer instead of ranting on about the Why in the question.

  36. user23 says:

    what’s more important is:

    What happens when you drop a magnet on the moon?

    • thecheat says:

      If a magnet falls on the moon, does it really make a sound?

      • user23 says:

        oh man. feels like omegle here.

        You: if you were holding a magnet on the moon and droped it, what would happen?
        Stranger: it would float
        Stranger: it wol not move
        You: in the same spot?
        Stranger: yes
        You: why is that?
        Stranger: because there is no force to move it
        Stranger: no pressure/
        Stranger: ?
        You: have you heard of gravity?
        Stranger: yes..there is none of it in space
        You: correct! but we are on the moon
        Stranger: ?
        You: does the moon have gravity?
        Stranger: yes
        Stranger: i think?
        You: yes :)
        You: so what do you think would happen to the pen
        Stranger: it would fall?
        You: yes!
        You: slower than it would on earth
        Stranger: wow…that is charming
        Stranger: :)
        Stranger: lol

        • Anonymous says:

          Wrong. There is gravity in space; it’s practically everywhere. It’s not even much weaker in the space above the earth, it’s just that when space stations go in orbit around the earth they are in a constant state of free fall, so it appears that everything is weightless, when in fact it is just constantly falling.

  37. benher says:

    Feynman is right.

    The interviewers choice of words (and even choice of questions perhaps – I don’t know the whole context) betrays his own ignorance to the very terminology required to answer said question.

    If you’ve got Feynman on a blue chair for a few minutes, ask him something else. During an interview, it isn’t only the interviewer who is ‘at work’ but the interviewee who has now been tasked with not only answering a question, but answering it in terms that viewers will understand.

    Calling Feynman an intellectual snob or pompous says far more about the labeler than the labeled.

  38. Willie Lumplump says:

    This reminds me of the old adage “I don’t want to know how to build a watch – I just want to know what time it is”.

    I learned a long time ago that there are some VERY brilliant people in this world that understand all of the most minute details about their fields of study BUT they cannot teach. A true “teacher” can explain something in such a way that their “student” will walk away with, at least, a very, very basic understanding of what was discussed. Richard Feynman has, obviously, not the slightest trace of teaching skills.

    Considering all the words that he used AND STILL SAID NOTHING, perhaps he should consider running for political office.

  39. sic transit gloria C.F.A. says:

    I’m pretty sure ICP are perfectly satisfied with the “Because God made it that way” explanation.

  40. Xenu says:

    Like a lot of things in science, it gets really complicated, then if you keep asking questions eventually you reach the limitations of our current understanding. But there’s nothing wrong with that, it’s the way science is supposed to work!

  41. RufusTheGreat says:

    Wow, that was great. Now I completely understand the glazed look my boss gives me when all he wants a simple answer.

  42. Anonymous says:

    When I just listen to his voice I really expect this to come out: “1.21 gigawatts!!!”

  43. jennybean42 says:

    I love love love Feynman. The audiobook interviews are awesome. He tells a story about sleeping on a couch at Cornell his first year as a professor.

  44. Anonymous says:

    Ah! I found the quote I was looking for in the first chapter of “What Do You Care What Other People Think?” — “I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.” To Feynman, “magnets attract (or repel) because of Magnetic Force” is not an explanation, it’s just the name of something.

  45. Anonymous says:

    Actually, you can simplify it a bit, though you would still need to dig much deeper to understand the nature of the beast.

    All atoms with an unpaired electron are magnets; the extra spinning electron creates a magnetic field because it’s a constantly accelerating charged particle(think of an object moving in a circle as going back and forth, continuously speeding up, stopping, turning around, speeding up, stopping, and so forth), and accelerating charges create magnetic fields. Likewise, changing magnetic fields create accelerating charges, which is how an electrical generator works. The other paired electrons each spin in opposite directions, so their magnetic fields cancel each other out.

    In regular stuff, all those magnetic fields are pointing in all sorts of random directions, which cancel each other out, while in magnets many of the fields point in the same direction and all those little atom sized magnetic fields add up to make one big field.

    How these fields actually repel or attract things, however, is an entirely different why, and it’s very complicated.

    Looking at this simplified break down of how magnets work, however, I feel that I really haven’t simplified it that much, so I suppose Richard has a point.

  46. Teller says:

    Richard: Going to the hardware store.
    Wife: Wait ten minutes; I’ll go with you.
    Richard: Going now.
    Wife: Why?
    Richard: Why?
    Wife: Wait, no, I didn’t mean that….

  47. Anonymous says:

    Obviously this gentleman would not be capable of explaining this concept to the ICP, as he is clearly a scientist, in which case that motherfucker’s lying, and gettin em pissed.

  48. jennybean42 says:

    huh, I wonder where the rest of my post went. Fucking comments, how do they work?

  49. urpBurp says:

    Brilliant answer! Perfectly points out the frustration (and sometimes futility) in explaining something when definitions are not common and much is left up to personal experience and subjective understanding.

    Imagine how little there would be to argue about if everyone had the same understanding of the meaning of words. Explanations would make perfect sense because “green” or “fair” or whatever, would carry the exact same definition for all. No more endless arguments trying to define a term, rather just decisions on what to do about it.

    He explained a lot more than magnets here.

  50. xzzy says:

    I could listen to him talk all day long. I don’t care what it’s about, because it’s virtually guaranteed to be interesting and when the conversation is over I feel smarter.

    I wonder what he’d have to say about the building named after him being round, with a round parking lot:

    http://maps.google.com/?ie=UTF8&ll=41.841576,-88.254982&spn=0.002126,0.004393&t=h&z=18

    Because let me tell you, it makes no sense!

  51. Anonymous says:

    Love that guy. Feinman did answer the question. From a particle perpective (rember that electrons may thought of behaving as a particle or a vibrating wave) every atom has electrons rotating about their nucleus (remember protons and neutrons?). Moving electons produce a magnetic field (take my word for it) and, similarly, moving magnets produce an electric field (your standard electical generator is basically a set of rotating magnets). That was the inter-relationship Feynman referred to is his discourse. In most substances the electrons run counter to one another about the atom, so the atom does not have a strong, coherent magnetic field in and of itself. And, even if the atoms of a substance do have a strong dipole (magnet/north-south poles) the various atoms in a substance can be pointing in many different directions (which diffuses the magnetic field). As anyone knows, not all iron bits are magnets. Individual magnets are made of atoms that have a strong dipole and are manufactured in such a way that all the dipoles point in the same direction (the north-south poles of all the atoms point in the same direction). Sort of like the difference between a laser and a light buld. Sorta.

  52. patdavid says:

    Reminds me of Louis C.K., and his absolutely brilliant bit on childrens qeustions of “why?”:

    Louis C.K. Why? on YouTube

    Easily the best part:
    “You can’t have nothing isn’t!”

  53. patdavid says:

    Aaand, the link didn’t work from my comment above. Here it is:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4u2ZsoYWwJA#t=7m53s

  54. redsquares says:

    When the meme started spreading, I decided to be an ass and ask my friends if they could explain how magnets work. All in all, I discovered my friends can explain (generally) this far: magnets work by having a magnetic field which is produced, some how, by electrons, the same way a blender works by having a blending ‘field’ which is produced, some how, by blades.

    It’s interesting how much faith we put into the physical world’s apparent observable properties, and the symbolic logic we made up to go along with it, without much knowledge as to what even happens before the ‘object level’ (A battery stores charge, but we dont’ really need to know WHAT charge is to use it). At what point of ignorance does one put equally as much faith in obscured yet scientifically provable rules as they would a ‘Faith’? As we move into times where the most profound experimentation is conducted with equipment it could take a lifetime to understand fully, not to mention the results aren’t always fully understood, it seems impossible to ‘accept’ the world through scientific fact, and more rely on scientific faith. You just hope the people before you got the small parts right (“standing on the shoulders of giants”, so you can rely on understanding the infinitely expanding ‘bigger picture’.

    Of course, you could also just accept that we can never know anything perfectly, so just be glad it works right now.

    Or you could take the time to understand how a computer works from the physics up through the operating system. When you get there, you can either start explaining what roles sub-sub-atomic particles have in various electronic phenomena, or you could move upward and start trying to unravel computer to computer communication networks.

    Of course I’m of the opinion that just because you can’t understand everything, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. It’s time for my 2 year cycle reread of “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”, I see…

    • Anonymous says:

      But it’s not a matter of faith; it’s a matter that there’s nothing else convenient to describe things like charges based upon.

      The answer to why magnets work is because there are more forces than you notice all the time, since most cancel themselves out except in special cases. The description of how they work is a set of very nice, elegant mathematical equations. What other kind of answer would you hope for?

  55. 2k says:

    ZENenenenenenenenenenen…

  56. Onigorom says:

    The phenomenology of attracting/repelling magnets is more intriguing than any answer that a natural scientist can provide. This is the reason why Feynman does not argue ‘scientifically’ but philosophically. If Feynman seems to suggest that there is no satisfactory explanation on the phenomenological level then all kinds of explanations – including poetic ones – may become appropriate. St. Augustine claimed that it is love that lets a stone fall to ground. On what grounds can we claim that this explanation is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’?

    • littlebrother says:

      Onigorom

      The phenomenology of attracting/repelling magnets is more intriguing than any answer that a natural scientist can provide. This is the reason why Feynman does not argue ‘scientifically’ but philosophically. If Feynman seems to suggest that there is no satisfactory explanation on the phenomenological level then all kinds of explanations – including poetic ones – may become appropriate. St. Augustine claimed that it is love that lets a stone fall to ground. On what grounds can we claim that this explanation is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’?

      Nope.

      He was explaining the lack of knowledge the public has about science. he was saying I could use “analogies” it like a rubber band, or we could go back and begin a physics lesson, and start to build up understanding of the observations, experiemnts and mathematics of the analysis and testing of the energized particles, energy and situations that pertain to the evidence the interviewer brought forward for explanation.

      He wasn’t saying “how is it possible to know anything because knowing is impossible” he is saying “this is how we know anything, because investigation and analysis is hard, but fun and doable”

      • dudemanguy says:

        “St. Augustine claimed that it is love that lets a stone fall to ground. On what grounds can we claim that this explanation is ‘wrong’ or ‘right’?”

        Very simply… St. Augustine’s position is not falsifiable. And while the question may lend some small measure of amusement to philosophers, as a scientific hypothesis, it’s worthless. So I don’t think SA was being quite as clever as you think. ;)

    • Ugly Canuck says:

      First, please specify upon what grounds Augustine may “claim” anything.

      • Onigorom says:

        I cannot think of any explanation that does not claim anything. If you explain something you lay claim on the equation between the line of argument/metaphor and the phenomenon. Explanation is appropriation in some respect. Questions are explanations, too. In the video, the journalist first asks to explain the feeling thus connecting subjective state and natural phenomenon, and this is why Feynman delineates/stumbles at first…

  57. Kosmoid says:

    It’s even worse for the biological sciences.

    For instance, when you start asking about the purpose of organs you quickly fall into a teleological fallacy where it’s assumed that these were designed for a singular purpose, like a windshield wiper motor.

    What’s the purpose of the appendix (besides acting as lymphoid tissue in the gut), or sex?

    • Anonymous says:

      It might be a fallacy to assume things have a singular purpose, but it’s not to discuss what purposes they have. Biology is special in that organisms develop in ways determined by how well they are able to propagate, so it makes sense to ask why something would be the case. They call it teleonomy instead of teleology to remove connotations of intent, but the principle is the same.

      • Kosmoid says:

        How would you design an experiment to test a hypothesis in teleonomy?

        Again, what is the purpose of human sexuality? Does everything boil down in function to how well it allows a species to survive?

        • Ugly Canuck says:

          Well that’s up to you, I think.

        • Ugly Canuck says:

          Or maybe your partner, I guess.

        • Anonymous says:

          Theories about teleonomy are usually tested by trying to isolate the trait in question, say looking at otherwise similar species, and seeing where it provides an advantage. You can find lots of examples in biological research, if you look up the term.

          I doubt you could say anything about human sexuality, because that covers a multitude of very different traits, which are not entirely genetic. And you’re hinting at moral import, which of course evolutionary purpose lacks, hence the name teleonomy instead of teleology. But it’s still a “why” question that can be investigated.

  58. Anonymous says:

    I am reminded of Carl Sagan’s offhand remark that to bake an apple pie one must first invent the universe. It’s all a matter of what you’re allowed to assume from the start.

  59. Anonymous says:

    Those who are interested probably want to look at the 5th video in this series (the posted video was the 4th in a series of several such videos).
    In the 5th he completes the thought he is trying to get across.

    His point, to which he adds a lot of color and insight, is that the interviewer is asking for him to explain magnetism in terms of “simple” things that the interviewer thinks he understands (e.g., he notes the interviewer would accept that when he presses his finger directly on the arm of the chair, the arm of the chair presses back), but in fact those seemingly simple things, that the interviewer takes for granted, are really the things in need of explanation. Physicists explain the seemingly direct interaction between the arm chair and the finger in terms of electromagnetism, not the other way around. Electromagnetism is part of our “fundamental” model of the world — what Feynman calls here the “base reality” — that we *assume* and then use to derive (as close as we get to “explain”) many many other things we see in the world.

    Hope that helps somebody.

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