I’m fascinated by Richard Feynman. Particularly by his perspective on problems. Feynman is known for his involvement in the Manhattan Project and winning the Noble Prize for his work on quantum physics.
When Feynman was asked to join the Manhattan Project, he was only 22 years old. Here, he joined some of the world’s top physicist and engineers, pooling their combined brainpower to try to beat the Germans in the race to develop the Atomic Bomb.
One of the main issues the team faced was the sheer volume of calculations that needed to be performed. He came to the attention of the lead scientists after he devised a very clever way of restructuring how they all worked together on these calculations.
The problem was, without computers, all calculations had to be done by hand. This made it incredibly slow. Feynman devised a way of getting calculations done in parallel. He saw a way of separating out the operations, so they could be worked on in parallel and then the results merged back together. This led to a massive leap forward in productivity. Instead of 3 large problems being solved in 9 months, the team was solving 9 large problems in just over 3 months.
He thought about problems in a certain way that enabled him to see things others didn’t see. He looked at a problem from more angles than anybody else. He had a habit of working out the problem for himself. He never accepted an answer at face value. He saw beauty in the complexity hidden in plain sight.
“You have to stop and think about the complexity. The inconceivable nature of nature!” – Richard Feynman
Years later, the same kind of thinking led him to create Feynman diagrams in relation to the area of Quantum Electro Dynamics (QED). It was for this work he was awarded the Noble Prize. At the time there were many issues with QED theory. Sometimes QED seemed to work, and sometimes it didn’t! To be precise sometimes QED calculations would produce an answer of infinity, and in general answers weren’t very predictable. This was stumping the smartest physicists in the world at the time.
To work around the infinity problem in QED, Feynman came up with a revolutionary idea. He developed simple little diagrams that allowed him to side step the complicated calculations required for QED and make meaningful predictions about the world. He associated certain terms in the complex equations with a simple little cartoon. These little cartoons became known as Feynman diagrams and they enabled a simplification of the complex. It turns out, this concept is so useful in physics, that it is now being used in a variety of fields such as solid-state theory.
The key takeaway here is to look at how and what you work on as an engineer. As Feynman did. Ask why you do what you do, the way you do it! Big problems are usually best solved by examining how they can be broken out into little problems. Then solve all the little problems. Better yet figure out how to solve all the little problems in parallel.
To give yourself a better sense of how this man thought, have a look at his answer to a simple question of why two magnets repel or attract each other.