Richard Feynman wasn't into pink elephants

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Quibbling over the intellectual merits of a man credited with breakthroughs in quantum mechanics might seem strange, but Sanjoy Mahajan does just that in Freakonomics, disagreeing with author and physicist Lawrence Kraus, as well as the reviewer of Kraus' new biography of Richard Feynman, Quantum Man, about the nature of creativity.

Both reviewer and reviewed appear to believe that Feynman spent too little time working at the leading edge of physics, according to Mahajan, who offers this thought on thinking by way of rebuttal.

If we were perfect reasoning machines, it would not harm us to first work at the cutting edge and then develop our own ways of thinking. But we are imperfect. As economists might say, there’s a huge path dependence in our thinking: Once you know something, it’s hard to unknow it. Once you learn a way of thinking, it’s hard not to keep falling into that way of thinking at the expense of finding new ways of thinking. I think Feynman had a healthy respect for how our minds actually work — as opposed to how they might work if they were ideal reasoning machines. That humility, a word infrequently associated with Feynman, made him wary of digging those mental paths before he had explored his own ways and had made his own, perhaps different, paths. That’s how he reached or, rather, created the cutting edge.

"Once you know something, it’s hard to unknow it." Putting aside the question of whether Feynman was a leader or follower in physics - I'm not qualified to say - Mahajan is saying something important about the creative process. Our minds aren't "ideal reasoning machines," but organic, imperfect, flawed, and it's by starting there that reason has the opportunity to transcend itself. Determined unknowing just manufactures pink elephants.

Wayne