Is it possible to predict the future? Apparently, Richard Feynman could.
He dreamed up some of the today’s most exciting technologies, like nanotech and quantum computing, decades ago. Moreover, these weren’t mere daydreams or flashes of inspiration; he foresaw how they would actually work, what problems would have to be overcome, etc.
Although regarded by many adoring scientists as a ‘magician,” Feynman wasn’t clairvoyant and there was no mystery surrounding his work. He followed clear principles that we can all follow.
1. Curiosity About Everyday Things
Feynman never set out to predict the future. What interested him most were everyday things. He just wanted to know how things around him worked.
For instance, one day he was in the university cafeteria at Cornell and noticed a dish spinning in the air. The dish had a small university logo on it and Feynman noticed that it was wobbling as the dish spun. He found the phenomenon strangely interesting and tried to figure out how it worked.
So while his colleagues were thinking about the new science of quantum mechanics, he was thinking about dishes spinning and wobbling (much to the amusement of those around him). He worked on the problem intensely for weeks and eventually figured it out.
It turned out that the principles he discovered also applied to sub-atomic particles and the work led to a Nobel Prize for quantum electrodynamics (much to the astonishment of those around him).
Intense curiosity about everyday things seems to be a common attribute of great thinkers. Einstein’s fascination with the clock he passed everyday to work at the patent office reportedly led to his theory of relativity.
G. H. Hardy discovered one of the greatest mathematicians of the 20th century, Ramanujan, mainly because he was the only one of any prominence to actually read his letter. All the other “great” mathematical thinkers of the day were to busy to spend time on correspondence with an impoverished young Indian from an obscure little town in the sub-continent.
Luckily, Hardy was also one of the few thinkers of his day who was able to recognize that Ramanujan’s almost indecipherable scrawls represented solutions to problems that mathematicians had struggled with for centuries. The work was beyond the capabilities of lesser minds.
It is ironic that often the greatest thinkers who see the farthest are also the ones who pay the closest attention to what is going on around them.
2. Amalgamation of Facts into Principles
When Feynman was a child, his father used to read him the Encyclopedia Britannica, which was made up of 24 enormous volumes. As an adult, he wondered why it had to be so big, why you couldn’t fit it on the head of a pin.
He knew that by reversing a microscope you can reverse its effects (which is why a magnifying glass can be used to burn paper on a sunny day). Why not an electron microscope? He thought up several ways in which the process could work.
If an encyclopedia could be shrunk down to an atomic level then why not a machine? He looked at how machines were made and concluded that in some ways, making machines smaller would be easier. They wouldn’t lose as much heat and therefore they would be more energy efficient and not wear down as fast.
He then concluded that if we could make such machines, it might be possible to “swallow a surgeon” and not have to have operations.
These weren’t mere musings nor where they mysterious. Step by step, each one the logical consequence of the previous; he was creating a 21st century industry in the middle of the 20th.
He combined these simple ideas into a nice little talk he gave in 1959 that launched the present field of Nanotechnology. He didn’t call it “great thoughts of a visionary” or “how I can predict the future,” just simply “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom.”
That’s how Feynman worked. He would take one concept and see where else he could apply it. He would think about what would have to be improved and how it could be. Although, he may have sounded crazy when he spoke about these ideas in 1959, the technology is driving many of the most exciting new products coming on the market today.
3. Acknowledge the Messiness of the World
Feynman spoke simply, but he didn’t try to tie up everything in a neat little box. He knew the world was a messy place and whatever rules he found would apply well some places and not in others.
He spoke often about the need to recognize inconvenient facts. He said about nature, “That’s the way it looks! If you don’t like it, go somewhere else – to another universe where the rules are simpler… I’m not going to simplify it.”
Only Feynman could make people laugh while announcing that he had just changed our conception of the universe. (See video below)
Feynman was not simply dreaming, he was looking for problems to solve. He recognized that as he was imagining a changed world, new difficulties would arise. For example, when you make things very small, you have to worry about the fact that molecular forces are strong enough to become a design factor.
Every solution changes reality a bit and that creates more problems to solve.
Even among eminent scientists, Feynman was famous for his ability to focus his tremendous energy on a problem over a long period until it was solved. He left no stone unturned.
Freeman Dyson said of Feynman, “He built his new theories brick by brick on the foundation of the old.” “Illumination came to him the hard way, not in a flash of genius but in a slow dawn of understanding after long nights of hard work.”
The famous magician, James Randi, used to play practical jokes on Feynman and afterwards Feynman would try to figure out how Randi did them. Feynman would call for weeks, peppering him with questions until he eventually figured out the trick. The questions never stopped until the illusionist’s trick was revealed.
5. Trendspotting as Discovery
What made Feynman such a fantastic thinker was that he was always trying to learn a little bit more about how the universe worked, whether it was one of Randi’s pranks or the mysteries of a quantum “foam.” He said, “I would rather be right, than brilliant.”
He never took a stake in the answer; he just wanted to find out what it was. He didn’t predict but often foretold.
In the world of business, the future is an extremely valuable thing so it’s not surprising that there are many who claim the inside track of tomorrow. The chosen few will be hailed (usually by themselves) as visionaries.
The others get to try again. There is always a new quarter, a new season, a new industry, etc. New predictions will be made and the odds are that everybody will be right about something sometime.
Data can be gathered to support any point of view. Surveys are long enough so that the right questions with the right answers can be selected and contrary evidence can be filtered out. A trip to the mall can uncover local phenomena, but global reality is often messy. A lot goes on in the world and much of it is contradictory.
What’s missing in most efforts is the desire for discovery – a yearning to uncover just a little bit more about how the world works each day. That requires being wrong far more often than being right and testing your ideas far more rigorously than a casual observer would. Sources of error are pervasive, correlation is not causality.
6.Watchmaking vs. Timetelling
The nice thing about the future is that it hasn’t happened yet. Problems are everywhere and they all need to be solved. Feynman was truly a genius, something very few of us can or will ever be. However, we can all do our part to uncover a small bit of truth and share it with others.
G.H. Hardy, one of the great mathematicians of the 20th century was humbled by the genius of Ramanujan, the impoverished young prodigy he had discovered. Near the end of his life, in judgment of himself, he wrote:
“I have added something to knowledge, and helped others to add more; and these somethings have a value which differs in degree only, and not in kind, from the creations of the great mathematicians…”
The true and valuable trends are those that don’t reverse themselves. They point to the future because they represent real progress. They are revealed less through certainty and more through wonder.
image credit: physicscentral.com
Greg Satell a consultant who concentrates on media, marketing and innovation. Check out at his site, Digital Tonto and follow him on twitter @digitaltonto