Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out - Richard Feynman
The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman is a collection of essays, interviews, and transcribed speeches from the well-known scientist, popularizer of physics, and polymath Richard Feynman (1918-1988). Feynman won the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1965 (jointly with two other scientists) for his work in quantum physics, but his list of accomplishments doesn’t stop there. He also worked on the development of the atomic bomb. He helped usher in the field of nanotechnology with a seminal 1959 lecture There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom (included in this collection). He was also an accomplished juggler, safecracker, and bongo player to just list a few of his diverse interests.

The name of the collection of works takes its name from the first essay which is a transcription of a 1981 BBC/Horizon (Nova in the U.S.) television program. The collection revolves around the themes of curiosity and the drive to find things out, how Feynman’s father was instrumental in cultivating that drive in him, and the essentialness of doubt in science. The last theme resonated the strongest for me many times throughout the collection. For example, in Chapter 4, The Role of Scientific Culture in Modern Society (a talk given at the Galileo Symposium in Italy in 1964), Feynman says:

“We absolutely must leave room for doubt or there is no progress and there is no learning. There is no learning without having to pose a question. And a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified – how can you live and not know?”

Later in Chapter 6, The Value of Science, Feynman says similarly:

“It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.”

Sadly, this point of view finds so little traction these days. To doubt is to be weak. To be certain – even with provably wrong ideas – is strength.

The part of the collection that dragged the most for me was the Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry. An important piece of work in the history of science and spaceflight for sure, I just couldn’t grasp it that easily. One could easy skip this piece and not miss the spirit of the collection in my opinion. The rest of the collection reads fairly easily and enjoyably. I hadn’t read much before from or about Feynman. I had watched a couple of lectures (the Messenger Series courtesy of Microsoft Research and Project Tuva) and had Feynman’s voice and mannerisms in my mind as I read which I think helped.

2 comments:

  1. I doubt this book is useful in running a civilized society! LOL.. kidding. all kidding aside, doubt is feared because you can't create rules without certainties. and how can we live in a civilized society without rules, boundaries and "certainty" of outcomes (consequences to crimes or rewards of hard work)... sadly even with structure, there's no certainty that consequences or rewards will prevail. but i'm thinking of all this from a socialogical point of view, not so much from a scientific point of view (tho sociology is a science). oh i'm so confused. i doubt i'll ever be certain of anything and I'm certain i'll always be afraid to doubt.

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  2. Nice turn of the phrase on the last sentence.

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