Interlude: Feynman on honors

The post about atheism in UK scientists will go up in about 1.5 hours; in the meantime, listen to Feynman on scientific honors.

As you’ll see from the video, Feynman feels pretty much the way I do about scientific honors. The real honor is being able to see something that nobody else has ever seen—to learn a brand new fact about nature. That’s an enormous thrill and a privilege.  Everything else is gravy, and pretty thin gravy. In fact, I’m not sure that they should give out prizes to scientists at all.  Ditto for honorary societies, which, as Feynman notes, seem to function largely to choose who else gets to join you in the pantheon. We’d still do exactly what we do even without the Nobel Prize or the Royal Society, for the greatest honor is the attention and approbation of fellow scientists.

After saying that he sees the Nobel Prize as a “pain in the neck,” Feynman adds this: “I’ve already got the prize: the prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick of the discovery, the observation of it; people use it. Those are the real things. The honors are unreal to me. I don’t believe in honors.”

Well, he did use part of his Nobel Prize money to build a beach house! But I wasn’t aware that he’d resigned from the National Academy of Science. (My advisor, Dick Lewontin, also did that, but such resignations are rare.)

h/t: Richard


  1. Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:50 am | Permalink

    If I remember correctly, he spoke about resigning from the NAS in either “Surely You’re Joking…” or “What Do *You* Care…”.

    • George Martin
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:18 pm | Permalink

      I’ve heard that Feynman resigned when the NAS voted down Carl Sagan.


      • David Hillis
        Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

        False. He resigned long before that happened.

        • Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          I think it was after attending a couple of meetings where he got the impression that the NAS existed solely as a bragging club.

          He reported there being factions who were concerned about how many biological scientists versus chemists versus physicists, etc., and there were cliques that were determined to keep the ratios “correct.”

        • Posted June 4, 2013 at 1:10 pm | Permalink

          I think it was after attending a couple of meetings where he got the impression that the NAS existed solely as a bragging club.

          He reported there being factions who were concerned about how many biological scientists versus chemists versus physicists, etc., and there were cliques that were determined to keep the ratios “correct.”

        • George Martin
          Posted June 5, 2013 at 12:04 pm | Permalink

          Thanks. Sorry my memory was so poor.


  2. Alex Shuffell
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:00 am | Permalink

    Honours and awards are good for advertisers, they can turn your name into a selling point. In one of the stories in ‘Surely You’re Joking Mr. Feynman’ he talks about winning. His first thoughts are to try and turn it down, but that would be even more hassle. Jean-Paul Satre did that, and it’s more of a selling point than if he accepted it.

    Reid Gower has done a series on Feynman (also a Sagan series). Honours is episode 2. Watch them all – – Almost as inspirational as Oprah.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted June 5, 2013 at 12:53 am | Permalink

      Almost as inspirational as Oprah.

      Surely you’re joking, Mr Shuffell.

  3. Ivo
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 11:07 am | Permalink

    Among other things, he certainly was a gifted orator. I can watch these Feynmann clips again and again, they’re so awesome.

    • Larry Gay
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

      I can’t begin to analyze his speech, but it’s very easy to follow — in a way almost childlike: subject verb pause subject verb pause … In the end you remember what he said. It’s the extreme opposite of some (German) philosophy I tried to read today.

    • HaggisForBrains
      Posted June 5, 2013 at 12:55 am | Permalink

      Agreed – I could listen to him all day. So much honest down-to-earth common sense, plus a wonderful mischievous sense of humour.

  4. Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:24 pm | Permalink

    BBC, showcased on May 14, The Fantastic Mr Feynman

  5. Howard Kornstein
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 12:34 pm | Permalink

    Of the many many things I so admire about Feynman, it is his qualities as a teacher that I particularly have come to think so very highly of. He absolutely loved to teach, and unlike most other exceptionally accomplished scientists, it was NOT teaching at the most advanced graduate level that most interested him, it was teaching introductory courses at the freshman level. His lectures on introductory physics are classics of clarity. In my own field of Computer Science (certainly not his speciality) his lectures on the subject are perhaps the best introduction that exists. He had the uncanny ability to reduce any subject he taught to understandable fundamentals, then build on that base to reach an understandable complexity. Wasn’t it Einstein who said “you don’t understand a subject unless you can explain it to your mother”? Well, Fenyman’s mom must surely have been one very well educated lady.

  6. Darth Dog
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:22 pm | Permalink

    Although the YouTube videos of Feynman are great, they were all done late in his life. You get to see Feynman the Elder Statesman. For a very different view of him I really enjoy the project tuva lectures. It is a chance to see Feynman at the height of his powers.

  7. Posted June 4, 2013 at 2:26 pm | Permalink

    There is no risk of me winning a prize any time soon but I also find honours silly. Giving somebody a prize for their work seems to imply that it is somehow surprising and noteworthy that they did their job…

    • Filippo
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 4:22 pm | Permalink

      Yes. Consider “Employee of the Month,” or “Sailor (or Airman) of the Quarter.” Were such “honorifics” forced upon the executive suite or wardroom, they’d do away with it.

      The corporate human “resource” mindset imposes itself in the schools. There’s a “Student of the Month” in some elementary schools. Schools nominate their school system “Teacher of the Year.” Any teacher declining the nomination would surely get an ear-ful as a result.

  8. Occam
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    It’s one thing to claim that the Nobel prize is “a pain in the neck” once you’ve got it.
    It’s another thing to make such a claim as an outstanding young physicist on your way to the top.

    Feynman’s disregard for authorities and ranks is well documented.
    But is there any firm documentary evidence, beyond the claims of his later interviews and the anecdotes from his “tape-recorder books”, that he always held the Nobel prize in similar low esteem when he was a maverick upstart?

    No one, not even Feynman, is immune from self-projection.
    And, as Feynman would take no one’s word at face value, we must apply the same skeptical standards to himself.

  9. Jim Thomerson
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:01 pm | Permalink

    I received an “Outstanding Scholar” award from my university’s Office of Research and Projects. I applied for the award partially, I will admit, as self-projection. However, I did it in part because I was Department Chair, and I wanted to project for my department.

    I spent a good bit of time writing an acceptance speech about natural selection as an explanation as to why there were so many grey haired, post-reproductive people in the audience. Speech was very well received, and was subsequently printed and distributed for the university community.

    The real big deal was that I received the acclaim of my neighbors. I used the $2000 honorarium to redo my septic system, which had been leaking and stinking up the neighborhood.

    • Howard Kornstein
      Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:19 pm | Permalink

      Hmmm, somehow I feel there was something profoundly poetic in your using the prize money you received for academic achievement to lessen the smell of shit.

  10. Wayne Tyson
    Posted June 4, 2013 at 10:59 pm | Permalink

    Feynman was that rarity–an honest man.

    He held stuffed-shirts in contempt. He did not suffer egocentrics gladly.

    He did think of the Academy as a huge nest of egocentrics.

    Perhaps his most interesting episode of this kind was his repeated refusal to be listed in a book of “Jewish Scientists,” as his several letters to the woman in charge reveal.

    All men and women could do worse than to learn as much about Feynman as possible and to use him as a model in molding themselves as human beings.

  11. TJR
    Posted June 5, 2013 at 2:33 am | Permalink

    The main thing about Nobel prizes is that they convey prestige and publicity on the *subject areas* that have them.

    Economists clearly realised this and hence set up the not-really-a-Nobel prize in economics, which most people are now fooled into thinking is a real Nobel prize.

  12. Posted June 5, 2013 at 7:11 am | Permalink

    I had a similar reaction to my first (and last) Mensa meeting when I was a grad student. We spent some time trying to prove to each other who could best solve some inane puzzle, some time discussing who from the outside world (the “other” people) might be worthy to come show us their skills at the next go-round, and mot enough time drinking and telling outrageous stories.

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