Great Men, or How To Conduct A Meeting

Feb 26, 2017

Richard Feynman remembers a particular meeting:

Specifically, from 5:57 onwards.


One of the first experiences that was very interesting to me in this project at Princeton was to meet great men. I had never met very many great men before. But there was an evaluation committee that had to decide which way we were going and to try to help us along, and to help us ultimately decide which way we were going to separate the uranium. This evaluation committee had men like [Richard] Tolman and [Henry DeWolf] Smyth and [Harold] Urey, [Isidor I.]Rabi and [J. Robert] Oppenheimer and so forth on it. And there was [Arthur] Compton, for example.

One of the things I saw was a terrible shock. I would sit there because I understood the theory of the process of what we were doing, and so they’d ask me questions and then we’d discuss it. Then one man would make a point and then Compton, for example, would explain a different point of view, and he would be perfectly right, and it was the right idea, and he said it should be this way. Another guy would say well, maybe, there’s this possibility we have to consider against it. There’s another possibility we have to consider. I’m jumping! He should, Compton, he should say it again, he should say it again! So everyone is disagreeing, it went all the way around the table. So finally at the end Tolman, who’s the chairman, says, well, having heard all these arguments, I guess it’s true that Compton’s argument is the best of all and now we have to go ahead.

And it was such a shock to me to see that a committee of men could present a whole lot of ideas, each one thinking of a new facet, and remembering what the other fellow said, having paid attention, and so that at the end the decision is made as to which idea is the best, summing it all together, without having to say it three times, you see? So that was a shock, and these were very great men indeed.

Oh, how I wish every meeting can be like this. Too often it implodes into a war of opinion, formulating one’s inferior opinions when you should instead be listening, or bowing to the stronger voices in the group.