Sunday, February 7, 2010

From the Autobiography of a Genius

Richard Feynman is an author I have loved reading dearly. For those who are not familiar with him, he is a Nobel Prize winning physicist. Some people call him the second greatest genius in human history, after Leonardo da Vinci. Here is a small passage from his wonderful autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr Feynman. If you enjoy reading it, consider reading the full book. You will not regret the time spent on it. I recommend him particularly to young people.


“When I was a junior or senior I used to eat at a certain restaurant in Boston. I went there by myself, often on successive evenings. People got to know me, and I had the same waitress all the time.

I noticed that they were always in a hurry, rushing around, so one day, just for fun, I left my tip, which was usually ten cents (normal for those days), in two nickels, under two glasses: I filled each glass to the very top, dropped a nickel in, and with a card over it, turned it over so it was upside down on the table. Then I slipped out the card (no water leaks out because no air can come in -- the rim is too close to the table for that).

I put the tip under two glasses because I knew they were always in a hurry. If the tip was a dime in one glass, the waitress, in her haste to get the table ready for the next customer, would pick up the glass, the water would spill out, and that would be the end of it. But after she does that with the first glass, what the hell is she going to do with the second one? She can't just have the nerve to lift it up now!

On the way out I said to my waitress, "Be careful, Sue. There's something funny about the glasses you gave me -- they're filled in on the top, and there's a hole on the bottom!"

The next day I came back, and I had a new waitress. My regular waitress wouldn't have anything to do with me. "Sue's very angry at you," my new waitress said. "After she picked up the first glass and water went all over the place, she called the boss out. They studied it a little bit, but they couldn't spend all day figuring out what to do, so they finally picked up the other one, and water went out again, all over the floor. It was a terrible mess; Sue slipped later in the water. They're all mad at you."

I laughed.

She said, "It's not funny! How would you like it if someone did that to you -- what would you do?"

"I'd get a soup plate and then slide the glass very carefully over to the edge of the table, and let the water run into the soup plate -- it doesn't have to run onto the floor. Then I'd take the nickel out."

"Oh, that's a goood idea," she said.

That evening I left my tip under a coffee cup, which I left upside down on the table.

The next night I came and I had the same new waitress.

"What's the idea of leaving the cup upside down last time?"

"Well, I thought that even though you were in a hurry, you'd have to go back into the kitchen and get a soup plate; then you'd have to sloooowly and carefully slide the cup over to the edge of the table. . ."

"I did that," she complained, "but there was no water in it!"”


Well, as I said, if you liked it, read the whole book. The book will do you more good than you can imagine.

Incidentally, after you have read the book, I want you think about a question that Japanese Zen masters have been asking their students for about a thousand years. Here is the question:

“I have a bottle. I put a goose in it when it was a baby. Now the goose has grown up and cannot come out of the bottle because the neck of the bottle is too narrow for it. How will you bring the goose out without killing it and without breaking the bottle?”

It is a Zen story – a Zen koan – and the only way to answer it is in the Zen way.

Give it a try. All the best!

By the way, I find a lot of Zen in Richard Feynman. The Japanese have a word, shoshin, which is defined as the Zen mind, the beginner’s mind. And that is precisely what I see when I look at Feynman through his autobiography. His is the Zen mind, the beginner’s mind. And it is so refreshing to come across a mind like that!

Einstein, Feynman’s senior colleague, too had the Zen mind, I believe. His whole life shows it. And besides, all his life he thought visually. Visual thinking is one of the competencies the Zen mind is great at. Visual and other forms of sensory thinking.

One of the things I do in some of my training programmes is helping people use these other modes of thought than the logical-linguistic one.


By the way, there is an old racial joke I was told when I first came to Jamshedpur.

Sardar Baldev Singh, who was a minister in Nehru’s cabinet, says the joke, visited the Kandra Glass Factory in Jamshedpur. He was taken around the factory. When he reached the place in the factory where drinking water glasses came out as finished products in a long line, he stood watching them for long time. He had a puzzled look on his face. Finally, unable to hold his confusion any more, Baldev Singh stepped forward, picked up a glass, turned it upside down and looked at it, put it back; then he picked up another glass, turned it upside down and looked at it, and put it back and kept doing this.

Now it was for the manager of the glass factory to be puzzled. What exactly was the man doing? Unable to contain himself any more, he asked Baldev Singh: “Minister Sa’ab, what are you doing? Is something wrong with the glasses?”

His face still clouded, the minister answered, “There sure is! Why, all the glasses have a hole on the bottom and their tops are filled in!”

When I read what Feynman told Sue, the waitress, about the glasses on the table, this joke came to my mind.


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