Feynman: Using chess to explain science

by Frederic Friedel
2/21/2015 – He was an American theoretical physicist, who won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965: Richard Feynman is considered to be one of the greatest minds of the 20th century, and due to a remarkable series of lectures and interviews he became one of the best-known scientists in the world. Here's one interview you should not miss.

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Feynman on Science and Chess

The following famous lecture was pointed out to us by Yasser Seirawan, who wrote: "Hat tip to Prof. Jim for this one." Thank you Yaz for reminding us of something we had not watched for a long time now, and initiating a number of very inspiring hours we spent with the great Richard Feynman on Youtube.

Feynman – Rules of Chess

Here is a transcript of Feynman's thought on how the scientific process is analogous to discovering chess (published at Metamerist and gratefully taken from there):

One way that's kind of a fun analogy to try to get some idea of what we're doing here to try 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're allowed to look at the board from time to time, in a little corner, perhaps. And from these observations, you try to figure out what the rules are of the game, what [are] the rules of the pieces moving.

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

Ah, then things can happen--everything's going good, you've got all the laws, it looks very good--and then all of a sudden some strange phenomenon occurs in some corner, so you begin to investigate that, to look for it. It's castling--something you didn't expect.

We're always, by the way, in a fundamental physics, always trying to investigate those things in which we don't understand the conclusions. We're not trying to all the time check our conclusions; after we've checked them enough, they're okay. The thing that doesn't fit is the thing that's most interesting--the part that doesn't go according to what you'd expect.

Also we can have revolutions in physics. After you've noticed that the bishops maintain their color and that they go along on 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 color, it changes its color. 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, and all of a sudden, some little gimmick shows that they're wrong--and then we have to investigate the conditions under which this bishop changed color... happened... and so on... And gradually we 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 becomes 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 that all of the time, what's kind of wonderful is that as we expand our experience into wilder and wilder regions of experience, every once in a while we have these integration in which everything is pulled together in a unification, which it turns out to be simpler than it looked before.

But while we are listening to Feynman, here are some more videos to watch:

Richard Feynman: Best mind Since Einstein – Published on Jun 8, 2014

Nobel prize winner Feynman was one of the most creative thinkers of the 20th century. Feynman blazed a meteoric trail through physics, from his landmark theory of electrodynamics to his devastating expose of the challenger space shuttle disaster. There is a marvellous 2013 BBC movie starring William Hurt on this subject, which you can ignore at your own peril. It gives further insight into the unique scientist, physicist, a man with a restless intellect, raging curiosity and a refusal to take any idea for granted.

Richard Feynman gives us an insightful lecture about computer heuristics

We have started the above lecture at 44 min and 21 seconds, where it becomes relevant to chess, but you may be interested to watch the entire piece, which was recorded in 1985, at a time when computer technology was in its infancy. Feynman discusses how computers work, how they file information, how they handle data, how they use their information in allocated processing in a finite amount of time to solve problems and how they actually compute values of interest to human beings. These topics are essential in the study of what processes reduce the amount of work done in solving a particular problem in computers, giving them speeds of solving problems that can outmatch humans in certain fields but which have not yet reached the complexity of human driven intelligence. The question if human thought is a series of fixed processes that could be, in principle, imitated by a computer is a major theme of this lecture and, in Feynman's trademark style of teaching, gives us clear and yet very powerful answers for this field which has gone on to consume so much of our lives today.

In case you are hooked: there are many more great Feynman videos on Youtube

Editor-in-Chief emeritus of the ChessBase News page. Studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford, graduating with a thesis on speech act theory and moral language. He started a university career but switched to science journalism, producing documentaries for German TV. In 1986 he co-founded ChessBase.


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