Feynman and the "map of the cat"

Posted on: Sun, 06/13/2010 - 23:29 By: Tom Swiss

Richard Feynman was a Nobel Prize winning physicist and one of the most brilliant minds of the twentieth century. He was also a drummer, an artist, a ladies' man, and a raconteur. His book Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! is a collection of stories about his adventures. This excerpt, where Feynman takes a graduate-level class in biology while he's at Princeton, just to see what's going on in other fields, is one of my favorites.

The next paper selected for me was by Adrian and Bronk. They demonstrated that nerve impulses were sharp, single-pulse phenomena. They had done experiments with cats in which they had measured voltages on nerves.

I began to read the paper. It kept talking about extensors and flexors, the gastrocnemius muscle, and so on. This and that muscle were named, but I hadn't the foggiest idea of where they were located in relation to the nerves or to the cat. So I went to the librarian in the biology section and asked her if she could find me a map of the cat.

"A map of the cat, sir?" she asked, horrified. "You mean a zoological chart!" From then on there were rumors about some dumb biology graduate student who was looking for a "map of the cat."

When it came time for me to give my talk on the subject, I started off by drawing an outline of the cat and began to name the various muscles.

The other students in the class interrupt me: "We know all that!"

"Oh," I say, "you do? Then no wonder I can catch up with you so fast after you've had four years of biology." They had wasted all their time memorizing stuff like that, when it could be looked up in fifteen minutes.