The slippery nature of “why?”

The other day, the science news web site,, posted one of the great “science rants” of all time. It occurred during an interview with the late Richard Feynman, when he was asked a seemingly innocuous question about magnets. It’s worth the 7 1/2 minutes of your life it takes to watch:

Notice that in this clip, Feynman is talking about why questions. As we’ve mentioned before, these are the types of questions that are of concern to the mathematical modeler. We create mathematical models to explain or predict phenomena in the natural world. That is, the mathematical modeler is a scientist asking “why?” and “how?”, but a scientist whose primary tools are those of mathematics.

Feynman’s rant provides a fascinating glimpse into the mind of one of histories greatest scientists and his focus on “why?” makes this a must-watch for the developing mathematical modeler. So, today, I’ll just leave you with some questions to reflect on after you’ve watched Feynman’s rant:

What is Feynman saying about the nature of assumptions? Where is he talking about implicit assumptions? Where do these arise in the modeling process?

What is Feynman trying to say about the nature of “why” questions asked by scientists? How does this relate to the types of answers that are acceptable for a particular “why” question?

Feynman makes some very careful points about the nature of explanation and “cheating” with an explanation. What is he trying to say? How does this relate to explanation through mathematical modeling?

I hope you enjoy this particular clip. We’re fortunate to live in an age where we have access to great minds like Feynman’s, even after they’ve left us. I encourage you to take advantage of that and perhaps spend some time following the YouTube thread through Feynman’s interviews and lectures.

– John



  1. Do you mind if I quote a few of your articles as long as I provide credit and sources back to your site?
    My website is in the exact same area of interest as yours and my users would genuinely benefit from a lot of the information you present here.
    Please let me know if this okay with you.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *