I first heard of you in the first issue of the Scientific American Brazil in 2002. A nanorobot carrying a cell- or an organelle-sized piece of matter through the bloodstream was the cover design, and in the middle the word “Nanotechnology”. It said you were closely related to that field of Science. Reading that I’d say I was caught by the “infection” at first sight, so from then on I simply couldn’t stop finding out about you and became a “Feynman addict”.
I was born in 1981, brought up in a low-income family but in a musically healthy environment. Some of my uncles would listen to their rock and roll vinyl records every day after work. Those were bands from United States and England. We used to live in those semi-detached houses so I would join my uncles quite frequently for listening to the records. I enjoyed that a lot. That new “sound” was pleasure to my ears so I would also try to sing the songs by trying to pronounce the lyrics inserted on the back of the portrait posters. I was around 11 or 12. That early little acquaintance with the English language would help later: I grew up having a tremendous interest in learning English. Years later, when I was around 18, my parents could pay for a four-month beginner-level course, then, in 2005, I could enroll in a two-year basic-level one, and finally, in 2007, I bought myself my first book: Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! I loved it at first sight: your writing style sounded as if we were talking to each other as in a sit-down. It made me understand. It did not complicate. I was really pleased that I could read in English and also immensely happy I would begin to effectively find out about you.
For sure I did find out. I found out about your completely accurate description of Brazil’s Science Education System and realized that the rote learning process absurdly existing in higher education also prevailed in my entire elementary and high school years. It was exactly the unthinking memorization process you described: I did effectively learn nothing. When I first heard the term “learn by understanding” I immediately opened up my mind to it. You liberated me from the bonds of false learning. From that day on I have consistently applied the learn-by-understanding approach to every process of my learning so I have studied and learned things differently.
Few years ago I was listening to a radio program about Science. A Physics Professor of a top-ranked university was the host, and he would answer some listeners’ questions sent by email or on the phone. There were guests and all. I had once read about wave function and I got puzzled. I couldn’t understand it in terms of equations, so I thought I would send “What a wave function tells us?” to the program hoping to get a Feynman-like explanation or at least something close to it. What I got was: “The wave function is a mathematical expression involving the coordinates of a particle in space.” Question answered, period! As in dictionaries! As in those many situations you told in “O Americano, Outra Vez!” I thought, “That’s not Physics! That’s language!” I was disappointed by the answer. I just wanted to know what the particles or the electrons or whatever was actually doing. In the following week, just as a prank, I sent another email asking him to briefly tell about you and your extreme importance to Physics. I listened to the program for four weeks in a row waiting for that. No reply ever! I quitted listening to it. I thought he perhaps dislikes you or something on account of your completely accurate descriptions of Brazil’s System. That answer concerned me a lot. “Is this an evidence of rote learning still remains in the system?” I asked myself. For being afraid rote learning would still be in Brazil’s universities I have decided not to pursue one. For some other reasons too, but that was the deciding factor.
It’s my fourth time reading Surely, Dick. How illuminating! Since the first time reading it, I have imagined myself being an undergrad student in those universities you went to. It would be amazing to be among those you have influenced. The vibes! Purely exciting Science! Sheer true learning!
Speaking of true learning, two smart guys called Gottlieb and Pfeiffer from Caltech have brilliantly put your entire The Feynman Lectures on Physics on the Internet. Hats off to them! But I am not ready, mathematically speaking, for them yet: my poor elementary and high school learning made following intermediate and advanced Math very difficult. In 2009 I enrolled in a one-year intermediate-level English course. Nearly two years later I got a fairly good job because of this also fairly good command of English. So I would gradually save money for continuing with my English studies and without doubt buying your books plus Math and Physics texts. Around 2012 I was quite happy that I could enroll in a two-year upper-intermediate course at a highly respected school. I was taught by native speakers during the whole two years! With an amount of money already saved, I would buy the books and texts. From then on I have been trying to learn by myself, embracing self-study.
The Mathematics for Self-Study books were the first I got. All the contents just in the first three books are more than all the contents I poorly learned in my elementary and high school years. They encourage thinking. I have been now effectively learning elementary Math so I call them “my elementary and high school texts”. I haven’t got self-studying “The Calculus for the Practical Man” yet, but I have been able to self-study James Stewart’s College Algebra and Geometry to, later on, proceed to follow Trigonometry, Pre-Calculus, and then Calculus. All of these Stewart’s texts are in PDF I downloaded for free because their print form would cost me a large amount of money I couldn’t afford: books here in Brazil are very expensive. To complete my Math section, I got the three-volume Morris Kline’s Mathematical Thought from Ancient to Modern Times. I skim through them once in a while, in “small moves”. When I am ready they will enable me to understand the development of Mathematics through History and how some development helped solving problems in Quantum Mechanics and Relativity. So these above are all the Math material, making every effort to get, I have to help me to follow your Lectures.
Understanding Physics, the basic concepts of Physics along with their humanistic contexts, and Modern Introductory Physics are all I have to be acquainted with the basics to then delight in self-studying your Lectures. Being mathematically ready for them, needless to say, is crucial, and I am as best as I can doing the job. I think that being physically and mentally healthy for them is also important. I have always lived healthily (no smoking, no drinking, and no drugs) and now have decided to live even healthier so to live longer to thrive on the Lectures: they are, Dick, the most important aim in my life as a student. One more important aim is to attain a Certificate in Advanced English, and I know there is a long, very long road to achieve these aims, requiring as too much hard work as there is plenty of room at the bottom. And all the commitment is, as you say, to appreciate the wonderful world and the physicist’s way of looking at it. And I will never cease finding it fascinating.
If I was asked to tell about you I would count only one single day of your life, for a simple reason: “the story of a great man can be told by recounting just one single day of his life.” And the day would be the one you were in lovely discussions with the then kid Henry Bethe about infinity. You always, Dick, leave us with bright eyes at your explanations, at your entire life.
This letter will easily reach you because I do know your address: at the deep of my heart.
Love you dearly!
Junior Augusto dos Santos