Advice for reluctant writers, from the Great Explainer


Ben Heath / April 2014

The American physicist Richard P Feynman (1918-1988) is perhaps the greatest communicator in the history of science.

His contributions place him among the most influential scientists of the 20th century. Albert Einstein attended his first talk as a graduate student, and as a young man he helped develop the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos.

Dubbed ‘The Great Explainer’, Feynman was able to convey complex ideas to both scientists and non-scientists with equal clarity. He transformed the strange theory of QED into a potent calculating tool that could be used to make accurate predictions about everything we see around us. He got the idea watching a spinning dinner plate. It won him the Nobel Prize.

Feynman was a pioneer in making science popular on television. When Bill Gates watched old films of Feynman lecturing, he was so captivated that he said his life would have taken a different path if he’d seen them as a young man. In 2009 Gates personally bought the private copyright to the lecture series, which is why it’s now freely available online.

The Great Explainer. But he didn’t like writing.

Avoided it like the plague. He had to be locked in a room with food slipped under the door to write up his science for publication. His books are largely transcripts of what he spoke, recorded and typed up later.

So where does that leave us mortals who need to explain science, or anything else of a technical nature in written communication? What can Feynman tell us about the art of explaining?

1. Understand before trying to explain

Sounds obvious. But the pressure of deadlines too often leads writers to regurgitate content without having got themselves to that crucial ’I get it’ moment. According to a friend, Feynman’s explanations “delighted his listeners because they walked away from it with a real understanding of the phenomena and how it was connected with a physical reality.”

Feynman was the subject of a Horizon BBC series called ‘The pleasure of finding things out’. For him the understanding and learning was at least as rewarding as being understood. And, as he showed, it needn’t involve writing: talk it through – maybe with a child; go for a walk and mull it over, draw pictures, watch and listen to as much online media as you like. Grapple with it. Coffee may help. Whatever gets you to understand is likely to work for your reader too.

2. Simplify, but don’t oversimplify

The explanation is then wrong. Your reader will misunderstand and think they understand: the opposite of your objective. Feynman used stories, metaphors, analogies and drawings to translate complicated concepts into a reality his audience understood. BUT he stuck rigidly within the limits of these translation techniques; he didn’t overextend them, ever. He said “this cannot be simplified further”. He didn’t speculate and if he didn’t know the answer he said so explicitly.

3. Level with your reader

You know stuff they don’t, they know stuff you don’t. Otherwise you wouldn’t need to communicate. So respect your reader by speaking their language. It’s good manners, it’s good for business and it’s vital for clear understanding. Few things made The Great Explainer angrier than making something simple sound complicated: “Don’t say reflected acoustic wave, say echo!”

We need Feynman’s wisdom because explaining science is vital. We can only tackle the great threats to humanity if its findings are effectively communicated. Explaining implications is not part of the scientific method: the end point is the publication of findings after peer review. Yet Feynman considered explaining science to be a moral duty. The MMR jab scandal is just one example of what can happen if this duty is neglected.

A recent biography of Feynman by Jim Octavani accurately captures his particularly visual way of explaining and brings the man to life. I recommend it. It’s a graphic novel, my first since childhood Tintins. Back then I thought all comic books were about super heroes. I still do.

                                         *QED: quod erat demonstrandum: needs to be demonstrated (also: quantum electrodynamics, for which Feynman won a Nobel Prize. Quite Easily Done?)