Thursday, 9 February 2012

Counting with Feynman

(From, "It's as simple as One, Two, Three ..." by Richard Feynman, as told to Ralph Leighton)

I was flipping through these essays by Richard Feynman recently. Not the physics ones. But the other, fun things that he writes about. I love his stories. The child doesn't like me to tell her stories. Ever since I can remember, she has insisted that I either read to her, sticking to the plot in the book and not making stuff up in my head, or just leave her alone so she can read. So it is nice for me to find something that she will let me narrate to her. We have spent a few days where I tell her one of the crazy things Feynman used to do, and before we know it, dinner is done, and she is giggling, and I get a hug out of it so I am not complaining much.

Now this particular story - the one in which he is trying to understand how people count (or think), by understanding how he counts (or thinks), is super simple, and really very fun. Despite the obvious, glaring loop hole here - an average human being's thinking strategy can hardly be compared to that of Feynman. What I personally like about Feynman in general is his inward looking-ness. I like that so much about him. I do find it hard to believe that he didn't care tuppence for the Nobel Prize. Things like that, I doubt, in these various renditions of his life story. But there is something about him that I absolutely love - and that is related to these 'experiments with himself.' Not necessarily in tribute to him or anything - but I love to experiment on myself, as well.

So the child & I decided to figure out this counting business ourselves too. We find, on quick analysis, that we can also count while reading. It takes extra concentration, however. We cannot count while talking (which is just about all there is in common between us and him, I guess!). We occasionally use our fingers for counting, and that makes it much simpler. We are working on figuring out how our respective favourite athletic endeavours - running & swimming - might fit into this scheme of things.

Of course there is a larger idea here. And that is about how different people think differently. One of Feynman's friends, could actually count while talking aloud, because he was visualising a tape (or ticker of some sort) running across with numbers, in his mind. Thats how that guy was counting. Which is super interesting. By the way, not in this essay, but in another one, cannot recall exactly which one, Feynman admits that to him, different terms in equations have different colours. And thats how math is organised in his brain.

I was thinking this morning (as I was driving, clearly two things that I can manage to do simultaneously), about how I think. I definitely don't see equations in colour (I have tried, unsuccessfully, to build that into my psyche, but given up as it was not natural to me). I don't see much colour at all in things, really, except for cars. I totally identify cars by colour (and nothing else, pretty much), I think. I have people's faces come up in front of me when I think about something they might have said. When I look at a face after a long while, a little visible balloon/blurb pops up on top of their head, with a name on it.

And the way I count depends on what it is I am counting! Feynman never said that. When I count pages, I say the number out loud (softly). When I count to get an idea of time when working out, I watch that timer like a hawk and always try to stay behind it. When I am counting to get the child to finish her task, I skip count. When I am running, depending on how tired I am, I say the multiplication tables in my head, starting at 16 and working my way down to 1 as I tire. When I am counting big solid objects, like people invited to a party, I use the segments on my fingers. And I count in English, except when I am counting the clothes for ironing - which I do in tamil (very inexpertly), for some reason... How do you count?


Choxbox said...


I like Feynman - he made Physics courses so much mor understandable, but the non-Physics stuff I find him a tad pompous. But hey when you are Feynman I guess you can get away with it!

Preeti Aghalayam aka kbpm said...

There is the new graphic novel abt him - have you read it? I don't mind the other stuff, but his claim that he was just pained out of his mind when he recd repeated phone calls abt his Nobel Prize - that I thought was a bit much. But then, all these guys in their Nobel Prize lectures seem to make some disarming comment of that sort. It seems to be a tradition of sorts!

Saad Bhamla said...

I'm sooo hooked to his letters book. He's so awesome.

dipali said...

Feynman sounds like fun here!
As for counting, if it's currency notes I count in Hindi upto 40 or so, and then switch to English. Strange. Clothes for ironing are also counted out in Hindi, and the number is promptly forgotten, which is fine as long as the presswallah doesn't know that!

madrasi said...

I was told people count in their mother tongue -- I think it is more true for our parent's generation really.

Anyway, at some point I resolutely tried it and now it has become something of a habit. Especially when I am putting side plank/doing jumping jacks, I count in Tamil.

Gives me something else to focus on.