Why Feynman, Why? 521 words published on July 16, 2021.

“Physics is like sex: sure, it may give some practical results, but that’s not why we do it.”

– Richard P. Feynman

Feynman is famous for (incorrectly) asserting the following rebuke. This idiom, as I’ve seen, has been used in select groups as the fundamental argument against various topics of conversation:

Don’t ask why in science.

Unless I’m mistaken, I believe this tale originates with this clip from an interview on the BBC TV series ‘Fun to Imagine’ (1983).

He never actually says don’t ask why, he simply demonstrates the rabbit hole you enter when you start asking these questions. In fact, he makes a point to directly address this topic and you can see how happy he is just thinking about the concept.

You’ll notice, in this example, that the more I ask why, the deeper a thing is, the more interesting it gets.

– paraphrased from above clip @ 3:39

So where’s the problem with why coming from? I suspect it’s the following quote, which was the only enlarged and repeated quote in the whole fs blog post (2012).

“But the problem, you see, when you ask why something happens, how does a person answer why something happens?”

— Richard Feynman

This I believe to be the real quote… but, just for fun, let’s consider how to interpret the original statement anyway; as if he had said it.

Feynman wouldn’t be saying, one must never ask why, rather he’s implicitly challenging you to ask why of the statement itself. In doing so, it forces a deeper understanding of questions, which are the requisite precursors to the juicy answers we all crave.

Take the question he did ask, “how does a person answer why something happens”. Well, you simply dive deeper into the matrix, down that rabbit hole and into the void. This can be tantalizing and wildly rewarding. It can also be a massive waste of time; thus the divergent interpretations.

So anyway, if someone comes along giving you shit about “why” questions and you need an out, just say “how come?”. These are “how” people, for whatever reason.

“Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars - mere globs of gas atoms. I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination - stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one - million - year - old light. A vast pattern - of which I am a part… What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined it. Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent?”

– Richard P. Feynman