So all fathers took all sons out for walks in the woods one Sunday afternoon. The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy said to me, “See that bird standing on the stump there? What’s the name of it?”

I said, “I haven’t got the slightest idea.” He said, ‘It’s a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn’t teach you much about science.”

I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn’t tell me anything about the bird. He taught me “See that bird? It’s a brown-throated thrush, but in Germany it’s called a halsenflugel, and in Chinese they call it a chung ling and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the bird — you only know something about people; what they call that bird. Now that thrush sings, and teaches its young to fly, and flies so many miles away during the summer across the country, and nobody knows how it finds its way,” and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

Richard Feynman (1918-1988) American physicist
“What is Science?” speech, National Science Teachers Association, New York City (1966)

Reprinted in The Physics Teacher, Vol. 7, issue 6 (Sep 1969)

Feynman spoke often about his father, Melvin, and the early science education he got from him. The final phrase above shows up frequently in Feynman's writings and lectures. Variations of the overall story show up in biographies and references, including this version from his autobiographical What Do You Care What Other People Think?, ch. 1 (1988) [with Ralph Leighton]:

So it ended up that the other fathers had to take their children for walks the next weekend. The next Monday, when the fathers were all back at work, we kids were playing in a field. One kids says to me, "See that bird? What kind of bird is that?"

I said, "I haven't the slightest idea of what kind of bird it is." He says, "It's a brown-throated thrush. Your father doesn't teach you anything."

But it was the opposite. He had already taught me: "See that bird?" he said. "It's a Spencer's warbler." (I knew he didn't know the real name.) "Well, in Italian, it's a Chutto Lapittida. In Portuguese, it's a Bom da Peida. In Chinese, it's a Chung-long-tah, and in Japanese it's a Katano Tekeda. You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You'll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts." (I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.)

Added on 12-Dec-22 | Last updated 13-Dec-22
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