The Art of Teaching (an ode to Richard Feynman)

Posted: January 14, 2010 in General, Uncategorized
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….and then I ran into a mental dead-end.

Some teachers have this remarkable gift of being able to send the brain into tangential sojourns through randomness. Where the English words entering the brain are received but only as a stream of mumbo jumbo. As I sat in class, pretending to listen and doing my best (but failing miserably) at sounding intelligent…I had a hallucination. (Well, at least it seemed like one, for I felt the class disappear around me.)

I was taken back several years to my first exposure to that arcane area of Physics; Electrodynamics. As I struggled to look and feel the concept, I came across a tiny little masterpiece by a Maestro…Richard Feynman’s introduction to Electromagnetism. Those three paragraphs have been embossed on my brain ever since.

As I remembered the piece, I found myself thinking hard about the art of teaching. Just as with other forms of art – music, painting etc. – I suspect a teacher is ‘born’. The ability to spark a student’s interest and, more importantly, being able to transmit the idea in a way that is remembered for a lifetime is what makes a great Teacher.

Feynman showed that the tough things in life can be Lego-blocked into simplicity…

Here’s Feynman’s timeless excerpt on Electromagnetism:

“Consider a force like gravitation that varies inversely as the square of the distance, but which is a billion-billion-billion-billion times stronger. And with another difference. There are two kinds of ‘matter’, which we can call positive and negative. Like kinds repel and unlike kinds attract – unlike gravity where there is only attraction. What would happen?

A bunch of positives would repel with an enormous force and spread out in all directions. A bunch of negatives would do the same. But an evenly mixed bunch of positives and negatives would do something completely different. The opposite pieces would be pulled together by the enormous attractions. The net result would be that the terrific forces would balance themselves out almost perfectly, by forming tight, fine mixtures of the positive and the negative, and between two separate bunches of such mixtures there would be practically no attraction or repulsion at all.

There is such a force: the electrical force. And all matter is a mixture of positive protons and negative electrons which are attracting and repelling with this great force. So perfect is the balance that when you stand near someone else you don’t feel any force at all. If there was even a tiny bit of unbalance you would know it. If you were standing at an arm’s length from someone and each of you had 1% more electrons than protons, the repelling force would be incredible. How great? Enough to lift the Empire State Building? No. To lift Mount Everest? No. The repulsion would be enough to lift a ‘weight’ equal to that of the entire Earth!”

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