Spinning Plates and The Serious Play of Richard Feynman

Spinning Plates and The Serious Play of Richard Feynman

Science August 06, 2012 / By Ben Weinlick
Spinning Plates and The Serious Play of Richard Feynman

How Nobel winning scientist Richard Feynman was a master of Creativity and Serious Play

By Think Jar Collective member Ben Weinlick

I'm not a scientist but I've often been inspired and intrigued by Richard Feynman (1918-1988). Feynman was a theoretical physicist known not only for a Nobel Prize in Physics but also for making science more approachable to the average layperson. From the lectures I've heard, it seemed to me he was one of those rare individuals who could take something complex and make it easy...or easier to understand.

My first introduction to Feynman came some years ago when hearing that Feynman came up with his Nobel winning Physic's insight through watching students throw and spin plates in the cafeteria of Cornell University.

I thought it was so cool that a person could have an important insight from something as ordinary and mundane as happening to notice someone amuse themselves by throwing a plate up in the air in a school cafeteria. For me, gaining creative insights or ideas from unexpected places is what initially drew me to research creativity and eventually led to the creation of Think Jar Collective.

Now, in most books (1), magazines (2), and websites about creativity, you'll find a section talking about how creative moments often occur when we are relaxed, daydreaming, surprised, least expect it, or doing something totally different from trying to solve a problem. It is common now to hear that you can enhance creativity by putting time into changing up routines, daydreaming, and reflecting.

However, when putting conscious time into taking breaks and daydreaming it doesn't mean you now have an excuse to be lazy. It also doesn't mean you should just go sit around watching street performers, or plate spinners and expect Nobel winning Eureka moments to emerge. There is a pattern that needs to be there for relevant creative ideas to arise. In a nutshell, the pattern is something like this...

Focus on a creative challenge for a bit...then let go... repeat many times

Focus...Let Go...

If we look a bit deeper the general pattern has the following features...

- Domain Knowledge: You need to know your domain you want creative ideas in (like how Feynman was already a physicist and knew "the rules")

- Focus: You need to spend a lot of time thinking about your challenge or problem you want some creative ideas around, (Feynman worked on physics problems a lot)

- Let Go: You need to periodically and regularly interrupt the brooding about a problem and do something totally differently (Like how Feynman went down to the cafeteria for a break). Even better if you schedule regular interruptions.

- Serious Play: (Serious means the play is purposeful. This doesn't mean boring playfulness; spontaneity is part of it. Serious play means you value play as a tool for fostering creative thinking. You have fun with it all; you explore and tease the old rules too. As you'll soon see Feynman was a master of serious play)

In the excerpt (4) below, check out Feynman's own words about how spinning plates and serious play led to some important discoveries.

Then I had another thought: Physics disgusts me a little bit now, but I used to enjoy doing physics. Why did I enjoy it? I used to play with it. I used to do whatever I felt like doing - it didn't have to do with whether it was important for the development of nuclear physics, but whether it was interesting and amusing for me to play with. When I was in high school, I'd see water running out of a faucet growing narrower, and wonder if I could figure out what determines that curve. I found it was rather easy to do. I didn't have to do it; it wasn't important for the future of science; somebody else had already done it. That didn't make any difference. I'd invent things and play with things for my own entertainment.

So I got this new attitude. Now that I am burned out and I'll never accomplish anything, I've got this nice position at the university teaching classes which I rather enjoy, and just like I read the Arabian Nights for pleasure, I'm going to play with physics, whenever I want to, without worrying about any importance whatsoever.

Within a week I was in the cafeteria and some guy, fooling around, throws a plate in the air. As the plate went up in the air I saw it wobble, and I noticed the red medallion of Cornell on the plate going around. It was pretty obvious to me that the medallion went around faster than the wobbling.

I had nothing to do, so I start to figure out the motion of the rotating plate. I discover that when the angle is very slight, the medallion rotates twice as fast as the wobble rate. Then I thought, ``Is there some way I can see in a more fundamental way, by looking at the forces or the dynamics?''

I don't remember how I did it, but I ultimately worked out what the motion of the mass particles is, and how all the accelerations balance... I still remember going to Hans Bethe and saying, ``Hey, Hans! I noticed something interesting. Here the plate goes around so, and the reason it's two to one is ...'' and I showed him the accelerations.

He says, ``Feynman, that's pretty interesting, but what's the importance of it? Why are you doing it?''

``Hah!'' I say. ``There's no importance whatsoever. I'm just doing it for the fun of it.'' His reaction didn't discourage me; I had made up my mind I was going to enjoy physics and do whatever I liked.

It was effortless. It was easy to play with these things. It was like uncorking a bottle: Everything flowed out effortlessly. I almost tried to resist it! There was no importance to what I was doing, but ultimately there was. The diagrams and the whole business that I got the Nobel Prize for came from that piddling around with the wobbling plate.

There are a whole whack of lessons about creativity in Feynman's story above. What other lessons in creativity do you see? You can post them in the comments section below.

Great Feynman video to check out when you have time called The Pleasure of Finding Things Out


(1) Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1996). Creativity. New York: Harper Collins.

(2) Knoblich, G., & Oelinger, M. (2006, October/November). The eureka moment. Scientific America: Mind, pp. 38 41.

(3) Kraft, U. (2005). Unleashing creativity. Scientific America: Mind, 16(1), 17 23.

(4) Feynman, R. (1985). Surely you're joking, Mr. Feynman' pg. 157-158

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