Before:

  • Neil DeGrasse Tyson
  • Bill Nye the Science Guy
  • Carl Sagan

there was Richard Feynman.

Richard Feynman might be one of the greatest communicators of science in history. A theoretical physicist who helped usher in the Atomic Age alongside Einstein, Oppenheimer, and the like, who’s charisma and passion for physics inspired the imagination of both generations of scientists as well as the public at large (not only directly, but through the aforementioned chain of proteges).

Watch Feynman explain fire in under 5 minutes.

In under 5 minutes, Feynman conveys the full concept of fire; what the event of fire is, why trees grow out of the air, and how fire is actually a release of sunlight on Earth, before ending with a cliff hanger question of why is the sun a ball of fire.

After you re-gather your mind from being blown, you might realize — the most amazing part of that clip is he not only explains, but inspires curiosity about complicated, dense physics in simple, engaging terms in a short amount of time.

So how is Feynman and (and successors Tyson, Nye, Sagan) able to capture minds and imaginations while talking about subjects its so easy to drone on about?

The Feynman Technique

The Feynman Technique is a writing / technical documentation process that not only clarifies concepts for the author’s benefit while producing high quality content for any readers.

  1. Choose a concept
  2. Teach it to a child
  3. Identify knowledge gaps
  4. Return to source material (to address knowledge gaps)
  5. Organize and simplify

The key to the process is step 2. If you cannot explain something to a child, you are forced to reconcile your own lack of understanding of the subject. Moreover, the only way you’ll be able to relay that concept to a child is if you increase your own comprehension of the subject.

As MSDN Magazine editor Michael Desmond puts it:

It’s that second step where the magic happens. Complicated language and jargon can act as a crutch. By forcing yourself to articulate concepts in the simplest possible terms, you force yourself to address gaps in knowledge.

By removing the crutch of unnecessary technical slang, you are forced to stand on your own two feet. If you are unable to stand, you need to hit the gym.

The Feynman Technique is not only a good way to strengthen writing, but also expose new and tangential subjects to explore along the way. It is a recursive function that both reinforces the knowledge learned and expands the horizons of the author by always exposing the next question.

Next question: how is it the sun is so jiggly and hot? I gotta stop somewhere.
— Richard Feynman

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