Watch: Richard Feynman makes scientific concepts beautifully simple

Few could match the famous physicist in his ability to communicate difficult-to-understand concepts in a simple and warm fashion.

  • Richard Feynman was a renowned physicist who conducted legendary work on quantum physics, the Manhattan Project, and investigating the Challenger explosion.
  • Later in life, however, he became best known for his education work, gaining the nickname "the Great Explainer."
  • His series, Fun to Imagine, works as an excellent primer to Feynman's unique educational style. Here are 9 science lessons he covers in his series.

Theoretical physicist Richard Feynman was unparalleled for his wit, warmth, and insightful understanding of theoretical physics. Being a gifted conversationalist with a powerful passion, Feynman loved to talk about theoretical physics and was good at it, so much so he was known as "the Great Explainer." Few others were able to approach the difficult and nebulous realm of physics and break it down into simple, entertaining, and informative nuggets of information. In his 1983 series Fun to Imagine, Feynman touches on a variety of topics from a big blue chair in his living room in Altadena, California. Here are 9 brief science lessons from this series.

1. Heat is just jiggling atoms

What we think of as heat is really just motion. Feynman explains that the sensation of heat is the "jiggling" of atoms — the jiggling atoms in hot coffee make it hot, and those atoms bump up against the atoms in the ceramic of your coffee mug, causing them to jiggle as well, making them hotter than they were before.

"It brings up another thing that's kind of curious," says Feynman. "If you're used to balls bouncing, you know they slow up and stop after a while. […] As it bounces, it's passing its extra energy, its extra motions, to little patches on the floor each time it bounces and loses a little each time, until it settles down, we say, as if all the motion has stopped." Instead, the downward motion of all the atoms in the ball have just been transferred into the floor, whose atoms are jiggling just a little bit more and has commensurately become just a little bit warmer.

Start the top video at 0:50 to watch this lesson.

2. Fire is stored sunlight

Carbon and oxygen have a somewhat paradoxical relationship; once "close" enough to one another, they form a very strong partnership, snapping together. But if they're too "far away" from one another, they'll repel each other. Feynman likens it to a hill with a deep hole in the top. "[An oxygen atom is] rolling along, it doesn't go down in the deep hole because if it starts to climb the hill, it rolls away again. But if you made it go fast enough, it'll fall into the hole."

As we learned before, when we talk about heat, we're really talking about motion, and vice versa. So, if we heat up an atom of oxygen enough, it can roll up this hypothetical hill and fall into the hole. On its way, it might bump into other atoms of oxygen, sending them rolling up their hills, and falling into their holes, which maybe bump other atoms of oxygen at the same time. This cascades, over and over again, until you have what we call a fire. Wood, for instance, contains a lot of carbon. If the oxygen around it heats up enough, the oxygen and the carbon can meet up and make a partnership together into the form of CO2, releasing a lot of energy along the way.

Where did this stored energy come from? Originally, it came from the sunlight striking a tree, which was then cut down and harvested for its wood. "The light and heat that's coming out," explains Feynman, "that's the light and the heat of the Sun that went in. So, it's sort of stored Sun that's coming out when you burn a log."

Start the top video at 7:18 to watch this lesson.

3. Rubber bands are jiggling, too

In addition to fire and the motion of atoms, heat is a big part of why rubber bands are stretchy. Rubber bands are composed of these kinked chains of molecules that, when stretched out, are bombarded by atoms from the environment that encourage those chains to kink up together again. Feynman proposes a little experiment: "If you take a fairly wide rubber band and put it between your lips and pull it out, you'll certainly notice its hotter. And if you then let it in, you'll notice its cooler."

"I've always found rubber bands fascinating," he adds. "The world is a dynamic mess of jiggling things if you look at it right."

Start the top video at 12:08 to watch this lesson.

4. Magnetic force? That's a challenge to explain!

Why do magnets repel? "You're not at all disturbed by the fact that when you put your hand on the chair, it pushes you back." With magnets, "we found out by looking at it that that's the same force as, a matter of fact […] It's the same electrical repulsions involved in keeping your finger away from the chair." The difference, Feynman notes, and the thing that makes magnets seem so unusual, is that their repulsive force acts over a distance. This is because the atoms in a magnet are all spinning in the same direction, magnifying the force such that you can feel it at a distance.

Start the top video at 14:53 to watch this lesson.

Wikimedia Commons

Richard Feynman while teaching.

5. Electricity: The reason you don't sink through the floor

It's pretty incredible that a wheel turning from the force of falling water from a dam can, when connected by copper wires, cause a motor to turn many miles away as well. If the wheel at the dam stops, so too does everything connected to that part of the power grid. "That phenomenon, I like to think about a lot. […] It's just iron and copper. If you took a big long loop of copper and add iron at each end and move the piece of iron, the iron moves at the other [end]."

In fact, electricity is the reason why you can't push your finger through a solid object. The negatively charged electrons in your finger are tightly bound to the positively charged protons in your finger, and the same relationship holds true for any solid object. Once you try to push your finger through something, the respective protons and electrons can't tolerate the addition of any more positive or negative charge — the electrical charge in your finger's atoms are neutral, and want to stay that way. So, the object and your finger push back very hard on one another.

In a wire conducting electricity, the electrical charge of the atoms is not neutral. The energy derived from, say, a dam, pushes electrons from one atom out, which repels the other electrons along the wire. We can use this energy to move a motor on the far end of the wire or turn on a light.

Start the top video at 22:29 to watch this lesson.

6. The mirror and train puzzle

Feynman described two puzzles he was given by his fraternity brothers at MIT. Why is it that when you look at yourself in the mirror, only the left and right sides are reversed and not the top and bottom of the reflected image? How does the mirror know to flip an image along one axis and not the other? Well, if you were facing a mirror with your nose facing north, the left and right sides aren't actually flipped—your right hand and your reflected image's right hand are both in the east. It's your front and back that have been flipped: Your nose faces north, and your reflected image's nose faces south.

Feynman thought this was an easy puzzle. A harder one is to ask what keeps a train on a track. When turning a corner in a car, the outside wheels have to go farther than the inside wheels, but cars deal with this using a differential gear, which helps each wheel to turn at different rates. Trains, though, have a solid steel bar between each of their wheels. How does the train stay on the track? The answer is that trains have conical wheels. When a train turns a corner, the inside wheels are riding on the thinner part, meaning they can rotate quickly without going too far, while the outside wheels are riding on the thicker part of the cone, meaning they have farther to go to make one rotation.

Start the top video at 32.05 to watch this lesson.

7. Your eyes are eighth-inch black holes

If a sufficiently intelligent bug were sitting in the corner of a pool, they could, in theory, observe the waves in the pool and determine who had dived in. This is what we do with our eyeballs. Like the bug in a pool, we simply take in this shaking stuff (the electromagnetic field) and can learn which objects have "dived" into our pool.

"There's this tremendous mess of waves all over in space, which is the light bouncing around the room and going from one thing to the other. Of course, most of the room doesn't have eighth-inch black holes [our pupils]. It's not interested in light, but the light's there anyway." We can sort this mess out with the instruments we carry around in our eye sockets. Feynman explains that our eighth-inch black holes are only tuned to a small slice of the waves in this pool. But the other waves, bigger ones or smaller ones, we experience as heat or as sound broadcasted from radios. The craziest thing about this to Feynman? "It's all really there! That's what gets you!"

Start the top video at 37:46 to watch this lesson.

8. Conceiving of inconceivable things

Scale, whether looking at very small things or very big things, is very difficult to conceptualize. The size of an atom compared to an apple, for instance, is the same as the size of an apple to the size of Earth. Feynman explains how difficult it is to consider very large scales, as well: "There's a very large number of stars in the galaxy. There's so many, that if you tried to name them, one a second, naming all the stars in our galaxy, […] it takes 3,000 years. And yet that's not a very big number. If those stars were to drop a one-dollar bill during a year, […] they might take care of the deficit which is suggested for the budget of the United States. You can see what kind of numbers we're dealing with."

Start the top video at 43:43 to watch this lesson.

9. Thinking is kind of nutty

Sometimes, we like to mythologize particularly impressive people, Feynman included. But thinking this way can be limiting. Feynman doesn't believe there are particularly "special" people — just those who work and study hard. That's not to say there's no difference between people, however. "I suspect that what goes on in every man's head might be very, very different. The actual imagery, or semi-imagery which comes when we're talking to each other at these high and complicated levels […] We think we're speaking very well and we're communicating, but what we're doing is having this big translation scheme for translating what this fellow says into our images, which are very different."

Start the top video at 55:01 to watch this lesson.

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What can 3D printing do for medicine? The "sky is the limit," says Northwell Health researcher Dr. Todd Goldstein.

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  • Medical professionals are currently using 3D printers to create prosthetics and patient-specific organ models that doctors can use to prepare for surgery.
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Maps show how CNN lost America to Fox News

Is this proof of a dramatic shift?

Strange Maps
  • Map details dramatic shift from CNN to Fox News over 10-year period
  • Does it show the triumph of "fake news" — or, rather, its defeat?
  • A closer look at the map's legend allows for more complex analyses

Dramatic and misleading

Image: Reddit / SICResearch

The situation today: CNN pushed back to the edges of the country.

Over the course of no more than a decade, America has radically switched favorites when it comes to cable news networks. As this sequence of maps showing TMAs (Television Market Areas) suggests, CNN is out, Fox News is in.

The maps are certainly dramatic, but also a bit misleading. They nevertheless provide some insight into the state of journalism and the public's attitudes toward the press in the US.

Let's zoom in:

  • It's 2008, on the eve of the Obama Era. CNN (blue) dominates the cable news landscape across America. Fox News (red) is an upstart (°1996) with a few regional bastions in the South.
  • By 2010, Fox News has broken out of its southern heartland, colonizing markets in the Midwest and the Northwest — and even northern Maine and southern Alaska.
  • Two years later, Fox News has lost those two outliers, but has filled up in the middle: it now boasts two large, contiguous blocks in the southeast and northwest, almost touching.
  • In 2014, Fox News seems past its prime. The northwestern block has shrunk, the southeastern one has fragmented.
  • Energised by Trump's 2016 presidential campaign, Fox News is back with a vengeance. Not only have Maine and Alaska gone from entirely blue to entirely red, so has most of the rest of the U.S. Fox News has plugged the Nebraska Gap: it's no longer possible to walk from coast to coast across CNN territory.
  • By 2018, the fortunes from a decade earlier have almost reversed. Fox News rules the roost. CNN clings on to the Pacific Coast, New Mexico, Minnesota and parts of the Northeast — plus a smattering of metropolitan areas in the South and Midwest.

"Frightening map"

Image source: Reddit / SICResearch

This sequence of maps, showing America turning from blue to red, elicited strong reactions on the Reddit forum where it was published last week. For some, the takeover by Fox News illustrates the demise of all that's good and fair about news journalism. Among the comments?

  • "The end is near."
  • "The idiocracy grows."
  • "(It's) like a spreading disease."
  • "One of the more frightening maps I've seen."
For others, the maps are less about the rise of Fox News, and more about CNN's self-inflicted downward spiral:
  • "LOL that's what happens when you're fake news!"
  • "CNN went down the toilet on quality."
  • "A Minecraft YouTuber could beat CNN's numbers."
  • "CNN has become more like a high-school production of a news show."

Not a few find fault with both channels, even if not always to the same degree:

  • "That anybody considers either of those networks good news sources is troubling."
  • "Both leave you understanding less rather than more."
  • "This is what happens when you spout bullsh-- for two years straight. People find an alternative — even if it's just different bullsh--."
  • "CNN is sh-- but it's nowhere close to the outright bullsh-- and baseless propaganda Fox News spews."

"Old people learning to Google"

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox News search terms (200!-2018)

But what do the maps actually show? Created by SICResearch, they do show a huge evolution, but not of both cable news networks' audience size (i.e. Nielsen ratings). The dramatic shift is one in Google search trends. In other words, it shows how often people type in "CNN" or "Fox News" when surfing the web. And that does not necessarily reflect the relative popularity of both networks. As some commenters suggest:

  • "I can't remember the last time that I've searched for a news channel on Google. Is it really that difficult for people to type 'cnn.com'?"
  • "More than anything else, these maps show smart phone proliferation (among older people) more than anything else."
  • "This is a map of how old people and rural areas have learned to use Google in the last decade."
  • "This is basically a map of people who don't understand how the internet works, and it's no surprise that it leans conservative."

A visual image as strong as this map sequence looks designed to elicit a vehement response — and its lack of context offers viewers little new information to challenge their preconceptions. Like the news itself, cartography pretends to be objective, but always has an agenda of its own, even if just by the selection of its topics.

The trick is not to despair of maps (or news) but to get a good sense of the parameters that are in play. And, as is often the case (with both maps and news), what's left out is at least as significant as what's actually shown.

One important point: while Fox News is the sole major purveyor of news and opinion with a conservative/right-wing slant, CNN has more competition in the center/left part of the spectrum, notably from MSNBC.

Another: the average age of cable news viewers — whether they watch CNN or Fox News — is in the mid-60s. As a result of a shift in generational habits, TV viewing is down across the board. Younger people are more comfortable with a "cafeteria" approach to their news menu, selecting alternative and online sources for their information.

It should also be noted, however, that Fox News, according to Harvard's Nieman Lab, dominates Facebook when it comes to engagement among news outlets.

CNN, Fox and MSNBC

Image: Google Trends

CNN vs. Fox (without the 'News'; may include searches for actual foxes). See MSNBC (in yellow) for comparison

For the record, here are the Nielsen ratings for average daily viewer total for the three main cable news networks, for 2018 (compared to 2017):

  • Fox News: 1,425,000 (-5%)
  • MSNBC: 994,000 (+12%)
  • CNN: 706,000 (-9%)

And according to this recent overview, the top 50 of the most popular websites in the U.S. includes cnn.com in 28th place, and foxnews.com in... 27th place.

The top 5, in descending order, consists of google.com, youtube.com, facebook.com, amazon.com and yahoo.com — the latter being the highest-placed website in the News and Media category.
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