main article image

Watch: Richard Feynman on Why He Can't Tell You How Magnets Work

We feel sorry for the interviewer, but we've learnt so much.

10 AUG 2015

We stumbled on this archival BBC interview with American theoretical physicist Richard Feynman over the weekend, and just couldn't stop watching. Filmed as part of the 1983 TV program Fun to Imagine, the interview takes a rather tense turn when the interviewer poses what I'm sure seemed like a very simple question in his head: If you hold two magnets with the same poles close, you'll feel a force pushing them away, and if they have opposite poles, they will snap together. "What I want to know is, what's going on between these two bits of metal?" he says, as Feynman does little to mask his annoyance. "Why are they doing that, or how are they doing that?" 


For those who haven't seen this clip before, Feynman's response to what anyone would consider a perfectly reasonable question is somewhat off-putting. To be perfectly honest, Feynman initially comes off as a bit of a jerk whose "delicate genius" has been needlessly disturbed. But through his obstinance, Feynman admits that it's actually an excellent question, but one he simply cannot answer in terms that a layperson can understand.

"How does a person answer why something happens?" Feynman responds, before launching into an analogy about "why" Aunt Minny slipped on some ice and ended up in hospital. Just as you can't fully explain that scenario without discussing the fundamentals of fluid dynamics, and why you can't properly answer "Why is the sky blue?" without also explaining the concept of Rayleigh scattering, he says you can't explain why magnets behave the way they do to a layperson without first explaining the concept of electromagnetic forces to them. And who knows if they'll even understand that?

Feynman tells his interviewer:

"I can't explain that attraction in terms of anything else that's familiar to you. For example, if I said the magnets attract like as if they were connected by rubber bands, I would be cheating you. Because they're not connected by rubber bands ... and if you were curious enough, you'd ask me why rubber bands tend to pull back together again, and I would end up explaining that in terms of electrical forces, which are the very things that I'm trying to use the rubber bands to explain, so I have cheated very badly, you see."

Jerk or no jerk, you can't deny he makes a very good point. Watch the video above to see Feynman's incredible take on the inherent complexity of "why", and let's all give that interviewer a pat on the back for taking one for the team. Your humiliation was for our education, and we salute you. 

You can watch the entire BBC interview below, which shows that Feynman was actually a wonderful person to interview. I wish we all shared his brand of unbridled enthusiasm for the world around us:

More From ScienceAlert

Hubble has revealed a dizzying new picture of our Universe's evolution

15,000 galaxies. Let that sink in for a moment.

8 minutes ago