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Feynman's ticker

In Richard Feynman's The Pleasure of Finding Things Out there is a chapter It's as Simple as One, Two, Three in which he relates how he tried to keep time without looking at a clock. Now Feynman seems to have been a pretty accomplished drummer, so he has that going for him: He can beat out different rhythms with different body parts. It's something I never tried, but I suspect I couldn't do it at all. Naturally, I was surprised at discovering how my sense of timing has been developed much further than his.
First, let's look at what he has to tell.


I started by counting seconds—without looking at a clock, of course—up to 60 in a slow, steady rhythm: 1,2, 3, 4, 5.... When I got to 60, only 48 seconds had gone by, but that didn't bother me: The problem was not to count for exactly one minute, but to count at a standard rate. The next time I counted to 60, 49 seconds had passed. The next time, 48. Then 47, 48, 49, 48, 49.... So I found I could count at a pretty standard rate.
Now, if I just sat there, without counting, and waited until I thought a minute had gone by, it was very irregular—complete variations. So I found it's very poor to estimate a minute by sheer guessing. But by counting, I could get very accurate.
The first thing here is, photographers (I'm one of that breed) used to have this habit of counting off seconds as they ticked by all the time. Way back when you removed the cap from the shutter and started counting seconds to time your exposure; then put it back on. After camera shutters got somewhat more sophisticated, you did the same thing in the dark room when exposing a sheet of paper.
At least in Dutch, we counted like this: "One-and-twenty — two-and-twenty..." etcetera. At "eighty" one minute had elapsed. This is a real advantage over Feynman's way of counting; it's easy to see how he ended up with minutes that were about ten seconds too short. (The English convention, which he didn't know about, is to count 1001 etc.)
Still later, when we got timers that beeped every second, you still had the habit of counting along. Naturally, you got perfect at it.
Feynman goes on to relate how he checked what affected his timing: Heart rate, temperature. He did find out "I couldn't talk while I was counting to myself."
This surprised me, for a drummer. It did strike me, when photographing British rock group the Kinks, how leader Ray Davies couldn't play the guitar very well while singing, which is why his brother Dave took over then; but Dave himself could sing and play at the same time. Go figure.
I do know that listening to music wreaks havoc on my timing; for a while I shared a dark room with a guy who insisted on listening to the radio and it threw my exposure times totally off.
Feynman even found ways to count other things while counting seconds; even while reading. "In fact, I couldn't find anything that affected my rate of counting—except talk out loud, of course. [...] I've never met anybody who can do [that]."
By that experience Tukey and I discovered that what goes on in different people's heads when they think they're doing the same thing—something as simple as counting—is different for different people. And we discovered that you can externally and objectively test how the brain works? You don't have to ask a person how he counts and rely on his own observations of himself; instead, you observe what he can and can't do while he counts. The test is absolute. There's no way to beat it; no way to fake it.
Now for the rest of my story. Later on, I started developing Ektachrome color slide film, a pretty complicated process where you have to watch temperature, timing and agitation very closely or your color will be all off. To keep my hands free, I put the entire process on a cassette tape which instructed me what to do as I went along. A fairly well-known trick, and a real big help.
After having done that for X times, also for color negative film in different processes, each with their own instruction tapes, I discovered I didn't really need those any more.
Naturally, I kept on playing them while I was at it, better make sure, right? But it got so I anticipated all actions and started emptying developer out of a tank a split second before my own stupid voice told me to do so. (Boy! how I hated listening to that guy!). Still later, we got those electronic programmable timers and the effect grew even stronger. We've had a lot of power supply problems, and at the not-nearly-occasional-enough power failure I just blinked my eyes, swore expertly, and continued processing, sitting there in utter darkness with no timer working at all—never a hitch. (I wouldn't recommend this procedure, though.)
But by now, it has really grown out of all proportions. It's been a long time since I have used a dark room, a good thing too, since my claustrophobia has grown worse and worse all the time. I'm still a timer freak, setting stop-watches and alarms for almost everything I do. I just don't trust this almost miraculous capacity. But really, I don't need them.
Likewise, I have developed (some joke, boss!)... But let me approach this from another angle. In Howard Hawks' 1959 movie Rio Bravo, Dean Martin plays an alcoholic sheriff with the shakes. When he loses them, to make a long story short (hey! it's a good story, and a great movie!), he demonstrates by emptying a glass of whiskey back into the bottle without spilling a drop. I remarked to Willy "zaal plat" (audience knocked flat on their backs), but she wasn't impressed at all, saying "I've seen you do that umpteen times." (But when I pore coffee into a cup, I'm almost guaranteed to spill some.)
Check this one out: It takes very little training to hold a stack of paper in one hand and divide it in two equal stacks, not more than one or two sheets difference. Amazing.
I wouldn't believe this if you told it to me: It's gotten so that, without thinking about it at all, this alarm in my head automatically starts ticking as soon as I start some time-related task. We have this espresso coffee maker—you fill it with water and coffee and put it on the gas. When you forget it, the coffee starts boiling and you have to discard it and start anew. These days, I just put it on and start pottering about, walk out on the balcony and tend to my plants. I am still as amazed as ever when, at some point, I decide I'd better get back to the kitchen and lo! when I walk in there the espresso pot has just started to make those funny noises indicating it's ready.
When somebody else has forgotten to start a timer and asks me how much time has gone by, I can give a good estimate. But when I make the mistake of listening to music or to pick up a phone, all this does not work—not what you'd call reliably.


Somebody wants to do some experiments with me?
(I just love experimenting…)



Richard Feynman

Richard P. Feynman books:
Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!
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The Pleasure of Finding Things Out
Amazon.de Amazon.uk Amazon.ca

What Do You Care What Other People Think?:
Further Adventures of a Curious Character

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