Richard P. Feynman to Frederich Hipp, April 5, 1961
Editor’s Note: Frederich Hipp, a high school student, was fascinated by physics (“atomic theory and quantum mechanics in particular”) and had built a cloud chamber for his science project. He was concerned, however, that he had little aptitude for math. His question to Feynman: “Can a person of normal mathematical ability master enough math to do work on some professional level in this field?”
Mr. Frederich Hipp
New Milford, Connecticut
To do any important work in physics a very good mathematical ability and aptitude are required. Some work in applications can be done without this, but it will not be very inspired.
If you must satisfy your “personal curiosity concerning the mysteries of nature” what will happen if these mysteries turn out to be laws expressed in mathematical terms (as they do turn out to be)? You cannot understand the physical world in any deep or satisfying way without using mathematical reasoning with facility. How do you know you don’t have an aptitude for math? Perhaps you disliked your teacher, or it was presented wrong for your type of mind.
What do I advise? Forget it all. Don’t be afraid. Do what you get the greatest pleasure from. Is it to build a cloud chamber? Then go on doing things like that. Develop your talents wherever they may lead. Damn the torpedoes—full speed ahead!
What about the math? Maybe (1) you might find it interesting later when you need it to design a new apparatus, or (2) you may not go on with your present ambition to understand everything, but instead find yourself a leader in some other direction, such as building the most ingenious rocket-ship control devices, or (3) biological problems may ultimately absorb all your interest and talent for doing experiments and learning about nature, etc.
If you have any talent, or any occupation that delights you, do it, and do it to the hilt. Don’t ask why, or what difficulties you may get into.
If you are an average student in everything and no intellectual pursuit gives you real delight, then I don’t know how to advise you. You will have to discuss it with someone else. It is a problem that I have not thought about very hard.
R. P. Feynman