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Reblogged:Feynman Was Also a Great Mentor

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A great teacher is not merely a subject-matter expert, but also a good mentor, as we learn from Richard Feynman's correspondence with a former student. Shaun Usher of Letters of Note sets up the context:

Feynman.jpg
Image from 1959 Cal Tech yearbook, via Wikimedia, public domain.
In 1966, nine years after gaining his Ph.D. with a dissertation titled The Self-Energy of the Scalar Nucleon, physicist Koichi Mano wrote a congratulatory letter to Richard Feynman, the man who had originally taught him at the California Institute of Technology and, more recently, joint-recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physics for his pioneering work in quantum electrodynamics. Feynman replied with an enquiry about Mano's current job, to which Mano responded that he was "studying the Coherence theory with some applications to the propagation of electromagnetic waves through turbulent atmosphere [ ... ] a humble and down-to-earth type of problem." Feynman responded with this letter. [links omitted, format edits]
What follows is exactly the kind of gentle encouragement and correction Mano needed. Feynman first counsels his former student to take on even simpler problems in the vein of enjoyment, confidence-building, and exploration via delight. Feynman then apologizes for giving "you the problem instead of letting you find your own; and [leaving] you with a wrong idea of what is interesting or pleasant or important to work on."

All of this is excellent and worth reading, but what I really like is his closing paragraph:
You say you are a nameless man. You are not to your wife and to your child. You will not long remain so to your immediate colleagues if you can answer their simple questions when they come into your office. You are not nameless to me. Do not remain nameless to yourself -- it is too sad a way to be. Know your place in the world and evaluate yourself fairly, not in terms of your naïve ideals of your own youth, nor in terms of what you erroneously imagine your teacher's ideals are.
Feynman makes the virtue of judging oneself fairly sound obvious, and yet this letter rightly appears on a web site dedicated to "correspondence deserving of a wider audience."

But that point isn't obvious: If it were, we'd have all gotten it within our educations and such a letter, from a widely-revered teacher, would never have been needed, much less deemed inspiring.

-- CAV

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