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Number 14: Richard Feynman - Science and the rules of chess


Richard Feynman deserves a Found and Liked page just for being Feynman, but I'm going to pick just one example: his way of using an image of somebody trying to work out the rules of chess as an analogy for how science tries to find out about nature. He used the analogy in several different interviews and lectures, but the version here is from a BBC TV interview from 1981.


Feynman, Richard (1981) ‘The Pleasure of Finding Things Out’ Interview for BBC Horizon

“One way that’s kind of a fun analogy to try to get some idea of what we’re doing in trying to understand nature, is to imagine that the ‘gods’ are playing some great game like chess – let’s say a chess game – and you don’t know the rules of the game but you are allowed to look at the board, at least from time to time, and in a little corner perhaps. And from these observations, you try to figure out what the rules are of the game, what the rules of the pieces moving.

So, you might discover, after a bit for example, that when there’s only one bishop around on the board that the bishop maintains its colour. Later on you might discover that the law of the bishop is that it moves on the diagonal, which would explain the law that you understood before (that it maintains it’s colour). And that would be analogous to when we discover one law and the later find a deeper understanding of it.

Then things can happen… everything’s going good. You got all the laws; it looks very good. And then all of a sudden, some strange new phenomenon occurs in some corner. So, you begin to investigate that – to look for it. It’s castling! Something that you didn’t expect.

We’re always, by the way (in the fundamental physics), always trying to investigate those things in which we don’t understand the conclusions. We’re not trying to check all the time our conclusions – after we’ve checked them enough, we’re okay. The thing that doesn’t fit is the thing that’s the most interesting. The part that doesn’t go according to what you expected.

Also, we could have revolutions in physics. After you’ve noticed that the bishops maintain their colour, and they go along the diagonals, and so on, for such a long time (and everybody knows that that’s true) then you suddenly discover one day, in some chess game, that the bishop doesn’t maintain its colour. It changes it colour.

Only later do you discover the new possibility. That the bishop is captured and that a pawn went all the way down to the queen’s end to produce a new bishop. That could happen, but you didn’t know it.

And so it’s very analogous to the way our laws are. They sometimes look positive; they keep on working. Then all of a sudden, some little gimmick shows that they’re wrong, and then we have to investigate the conditions under which this bishop change of colour happened, and so forth. And gradually learn the new rule that explains it more deeply.

Unlike the chess game though… in the case of the chess game, the rules become more complicated as you go along. But in the physics, when you discover new things, it looks more simple. It appears on the whole to be more complicated because we learn about a greater experience. That is, we learn about more particles and new things. And so the laws look complicated again.

But if you realize all the time, what’s kind of wonderful, is as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once and while we have these integrations in which everything is pulled together in a unification which it turns out to simpler than it looked before.”