Winang’s Feynman Story

What is it about Feynman that caught your interest?

A little background: I live in the city of Yogyakarta (the “city of culture”) in the island of Java in Indonesia (that’s north of Australia).  Both of my parents are natives of Yogyakarta.  I spent most of my childhood in the island of Sumatra, west of Java.  I lived for two years in the United States in 1986-87 during sixth and seventh grade.  From high school onwards I lived in Yogyakarta.  Yogyakarta is situated on the slopes of Mount Merapi, an active volcano.  Besides being a center of Javanese culture, it is also a city of education, full of universities and academies.

I first encountered Richard Feynman from his book “What do YOU care what other people think?” (WDY).  I was in high school in 1991 and I was browsing the “English language” book section of a local bookstore.  I read the book standing up, having no idea who Feynman was.  Anyway I must have read about a quarter of the book when I got tired and went home, determined to come back tomorrow to read some more.  I didn’t buy the book because it was very expensive (all imported books are).  I guess Feynman wouldn’t have approved of that.  It’s like stealing in a way, reading a book at the bookstore and not buying it.  But like I said, I went back and continued reading, becoming increasingly fascinated and amused by the ideas and experiences of Richard Feynman.  I must have read it for like three straight days (I read slowly), before one day the book mysteriously disappears.  I had almost finished the whole book, and I regretted not buying the book.

By some mysterious luck my father was sent for an assignment in the US (he works for an oil company) and I asked him to buy me any book on Feynman.   “Genius” had just come out and he bought me the brand new, hardcover version.  I read the whole thing straight through in a week, doing little of anything else.  I was hooked into the Feynman universe.  After having searched “Feynman” through Yahoo!, I stumbled into the Feynman Online! homepage.  I was increasingly hooked.  And then there was this big hype about a new online bookstore,, with millions of titles in print, including Feynman books!  I ordered “Six Easy Pieces“, “QED“, and “The Character of Physical Law“.  The cost of the books was actually a bit lower than the average cost of similar foreign books sold in the local bookstore.

Finally, from Friends of Tuva, I ordered “Surely You’re Joking Mr.  Feynman.”  Meanwhile on another assignment to Singapore my father bought me WDYC which I almost finished in the bookstore.  I was thinking about buying even more Feynman stuff when the economic crisis hit.  Prices for imported goods went up almost 400%, due to the decline of the value of the Rupiah (the Indonesian currency) against the US dollar.  To get an idea of how bad things are, a $30 book would cost, in rupiahs, more than a full year’s state college tuition.  A typical first wage for a college educated accountant (who I am aspiring to be) is $70 a month, and that’s a good, upper class paycheck.  A typical high school teacher makes only $30 a month, and that’s a middle class income in Indonesia.  Anyway, the point is that there would be no more book-buying, so I’m trying hard to find free stuff on the internet, which is cheap (the subscription fee is less than $3 a month for more than 20 hours of log-in time).

So that’s how I discovered Feynman.  The thing that fascinated me most about him is his idea of science.  I was frustrated with the way science was taught at school.  We had separate subjects like Physics, Chemistry, and Biology, but they were all dull and uninspiring.  I knew something was wrong but I just couldn’t pinpoint what it was.  The story in WDY about how the name of the bird didn’t matter nailed it.  It was like being struck by bolt of lightning: this is the way it should be done!  At school we were being thought to memorize names: processes, materials, species; and procedures: methods of computations, equations and so forth.  These were all difficult to accomplish, but even after you had done it right you didn’t have any sense or feeling of having understood nature.  In fact, you had no idea of how what you’re learning related to the real world. There was no meaning behind the equations.

Thus, inspired by Feynman, I resolved to teach myself science, especially the basics of what science really is.  I have to admit that it’s extremely difficult for me to understand advanced physics.  I decided to major in Accounting here at Gadjah Mada University (it’s a top university in Indonesia, but I’m sure no one outside Indonesia has ever heard of it) for practical reasons: it is easier to get a well-paying job with a degree in Accounting.  To study Physics in Indonesia is to commit to a life of relative poverty.  If your grades are good enough for you to be accepted as a professor at a university, then it wouldn’t be so bad, but it’s still a hard life.  But Accounting is a boring subject compared to the glory of science, which has remained a major passion in my life.

The other draw of Feynman is the idea that a real genius had once walked this earth.  Of course Einstein was also a genius.  But the thing is, I don’t understand his work at all (maybe I’m just dumb).  With Feynman I can understand and appreciate many of his brilliant ideas (if not his technical work).   He is like a “genius for the masses.”  Well, I guess that’s all I have to say for now.  I’ve had many interesting adventures connected directly or indirectly from my knowledge of Feynman, including a discussion over a bottle of vodka with a friend on “The Principle of Doubt”, an idea that I got from Feynman.   He has truly changed my way of life.  I’ll elaborate on it if anyone is interested.

— Winang Asmara