Richard Feynman was one of the greatest and most influential physicists of all time. Awarded a Nobel Prize in physics for his work on quantum electrodynamics, his academic career included working on the Manhattan Project and with Nasa investigating the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster.

Defying the stereotype of an academic physicist, Feynman was also a renowned communicator. Late to the party, it was not until my PGCE year that I actually watched or read anything by Feynman. My PGCE tutor showed us a video of Feynman from a BBC series in the 1980’s called Fun to Imagine. Scientific conundrums would be posed to a relaxed Feynman who would respond with an explanation of the fundamental physics beneath the problem. In my PGCE days I didn’t really consider artful explanations as a particularly important area of my practice; I was too focussed on other things.

Late to another party, it took me a while to realise that a good explanation is worth its weight in gold and is a vital part of every teacher’s repertoire. Now, every time I revisit those videos – whether by myself, with a class or with my own PGCE students – I spend a lot of time thinking about what it is that made Feynman such a great explainer. I’ve teamed up with Mark Enser and Ben Newmark to write a few blogs on our chosen Great Explainers. We hope to try and dissect some of the things we’ve seen and provide a little food for thought and discussion. My entry will look at Feynman and the things I have taken from watching his explanations, videos of which can all be found here. It would be an injustice to him to reference just one clip, so I’ve tried to pull the things which struck me the most from a series of different videos.

1. Enthusiasm

The first thing that’s noticeable about Feynman is his enthusiasm. His face radiates enjoyment whilst he is talking. He references the fact that some people don’t find this stuff interesting but that he definitely does; he is genuinely invested in his subject matter. He constantly vocalises phrases like “isn’t that interesting” or “isn’t that strange” or “it’s amazing when you think about it.” This is a man who lives, breathes and adores the science.

It’s always easier to get involved in an explanation if the explainer loves what they’re doing. The enthusiasm is infectious and you find yourself agreeing with the explainer. You get caught up in the energy of the explanation and you almost feel a part of it, you find yourself agreeing “yeah, that IS interesting!”

2. Use of analogy 

Feynman makes outstanding and extensive use of analogy. My favourite is when he is talking about light waves. He imagines a fly floating on the surface of the water in the corner of a swimming pool. Every time someone in the swimming pool splashes or kicks they create a wave which travels round the pool and makes the fly bob up and down. He posits that if the fly had remarkable intelligence it could work out, just by the nature of its bobbing up and down, what had caused the initial wave. The eye achieves just that. Light waves ricochet and careen around us from luminous sources like the Sun or a light bulb. Our eyes detect those waves and, in conjunction with our brain, piece together the places where the waves have come from and generate a mental image of our surroundings.

The purpose of an analogy is to anchor something abstract and conceptual in something that we know about already; to place it in concrete and readily understandable terms. Feynman is a master at this.

Interestingly, in his video about magnetic force he says that when talking about electrical forces they cannot be understood with reference to anything else. For this he has no analogy. He says that they just are a truth about the universe, a truth that must be accepted. Any analogy must fail. We mustn’t mindlessly try for analogies in every case; occasionally we must throw in the towel and accept that a thing cannot be explained by reference to something other than itself.

3. Conflict

Many people will be familiar with Willingham’s adage that “stories are psychologically privileged” (I was late to that party too by the way). Humans love a good story and there are some narrative principles which can aid explanation and memory. One such principle is that of conflict; a point within your narrative at which two ideas clash. Feynman generates such conflict and mystery with ease. Why is it that ice is slippery but other solids aren’t? Why is it that my hand doesn’t pass straight through the arms of this chair? Why is that trains don’t come off their tracks when turning a corner if the outer wheel must travel further than the inner wheel? The conflict draws us in. It makes us wonder and it makes us curious.

But wonder and curiosity are not, to my mind, ends in themselves. They are only meaningful when focussed to the explainer’s desired outcome: a thirst to know the answer and a drive to know more.

4. Memorable language

Feynman’s vocabulary is rich but not overly technical. Some of his word choices are eccentric, but deliberate. The first video in the BBC series is all about the “jiggling” of atoms. Jiggling isn’t a word we use so much and somehow it sounds more…fun…than the more common and more technical “vibrating.” It plays into his general charismatic style but it’s also more memorable. It’s a word whose sheer eccentricity causes it to stick in the mind.

5. Which level are we aiming at?

Feynman has a fascinating discussion with the interviewer about magnetic fields. The interviewer asks him why magnets repel, and he answered that it is because magnets repel. He goes on to explain that we can always ask why, why, why to something we have been told but it isn’t always helpful. We must look at the right level of abstraction, to try and zoom in on what is appropriate to be discussed now and what has to wait for another time. He acknowledges – and this is crucial – that his response depends on the knowledge of the listener. The correct level of abstraction must be chosen carefully to convey information clearly and logically. Interestingly, when discussing certain ideas he will often reference an additional layer of complexity. But he makes it clear verbally and through a subtle shift in intonation that this is an aside, not part of his current narrative thrust.

I love Feynman and I loved writing this little piece simply because it gave me an excuse to spend an evening revisiting his videos. Mark and Ben will be publishing within the next few days so make sure to keep an eye out for their Great Explainers. If you have someone that you’ve always thought was a great explainer treat yourself to an evening on YouTube and get your thoughts out there – the more the merrier.