Kevin Nihill on Richard Feynman and Organic Chemistry

Noodle Expert Kevin Nihill discusses his admiration for Richard Feynman's pop-science sensibilities, why it's important for Americans to see the U.K., and why rote memorization isn't always conducive to real learning.

Who would you pick, alive or dead, to be your teacher for a year? What would you want to learn?

As a scientist, it’s hard not to go with Richard Feynman. I’ve seen many of his videos and read a bunch of his lectures, and he has an uncanny ability to take very complicated subject matter and reform it into an easily digestible message. It’s my goal to do what he does — to take something foreign and unintelligible and make it feel native, and even really interesting. What I would hope to pick up from him are the building blocks that lay the foundation for understanding novel topics.

What is one small piece of advice that has had a big impact on your life?

It’s less advice than it is an effective parenting technique — but when I’d come home and complain to my mom about how some other kid had done something one way or the other, she’d say, “Well he doesn’t live under this roof.” Why should my mom care about some other kid’s actions? And why should I?

Where would you send a student who hasn't traveled before?

The U.K. Apart from all the art and history museums, it’s really cool to see how people live in a seemingly-similar-but-actually-quite-different culture. Their approach to education, for example, is very different from ours in the U.S., as the British foster more of an approach to a single subject in college, whereas here we try to get the whole core covered. It may be better or it may be worse, but getting a new perspective is always very important and healthy. Also, they have these prawn cocktail-flavored chips called Skips, and I get that they sound like a nasty treat but they’re really delicious.

When was a time that you failed academically, and what did you learn from the experience?

Organic chemistry is difficult for most people, and I was no exception, but I only realized long after the fact that I didn’t perform well because of my approach: memorizing information without applying it within a context. Trying to memorize how two random things interact is an exercise in insanity, but if you can make those two things not random, your life gets a lot easier. The lesson I took away from this course is one that has helped shape my academic experience in a big way; memorizing information can be useful in certain situations, but understanding core concepts is the name of the game. This is one of those sentiments that everyone suggests, but you don’t really understand how important it is until you actually begin to do it for yourself.

Why did you go into your field, and how is it different from what you expected?

Simply put, I followed my interests and saw where they took me, and I’m still doing just that. I like trying to understand the machinations behind everything, so science was a natural fit; after taking chemistry in high school, I just continued down that path and loved complementing old information with new takes on similar subjects. Everything went more or less as I anticipated it would until I made it to graduate school, where the classes are no longer about basic concepts, but about the cutting edge of scientific knowledge and research. Trying to make sense of things that have only been discovered in recent history by experts in the field is a whole different monster from the canonical lessons that have been perfected over years of lessons.

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