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Feynman on Science

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12 July 2012 by Ian Davis

I admire Richard Feynman hugely and I regret that I did not discover him earlier in my life. I first read one of his books a few years after leaving university but if I had read his works or seen his lectures while I was an undergraduate studying Theoretical Physics then I know I would have had a deeper understanding and insight into the nature of the world. He is the only person who I hear in my head when I read his words. That may be due to his distinctive New York drawl, but I hear it and it’s fantastic.

I recently finished re-reading The Pleasure of Finding Things Out which is a diverse collection of Richard Feynman’s writings and talks. To be frank, the book is a bit of a mixed bag: there are some great pieces in there and some not-so-great ones. To get a real picture of the man you have to read a lot more of his works and watch the various videos of him at work. He was irreverent, chaotic and misogynistic by today’s standards, but above all that he was human and had humanity.

This time round I read it on the kindle which let me collect together a series of notes and extracts from the book, nicely collated online for me by Amazon. This is a new experience for me because I have never marked or annotated a paper book in my life (I treasured them so much as a child). Being able to mark text on the Kindle is liberating for me personally. All the quotes in this post are ones I gathered while reading The Pleasure of Finding Things Out.

I think Feynman stands as one of science’s greatest teachers and communicators. He had true insight into what it meant to be a scientist, worlds away from the dry “scientific method” philosophy of Popper and others. His philosophy was grounded in the real world (and how he would hate to be spoken of as having a philosophy!). His most succinct definition of science was:

Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

Central to his conception of science was the right to doubt:

It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and 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.

This strikes at the heart of religion in his view which is based on faith, not doubt. Referring to Galileo among others he says:

Our freedom to doubt was born of a struggle against authority in the early days of science.

He was comfortable with the notion of not understanding the world completely, of not having an explanation for everything. This is something I deeply share with him and why I feel such an affinity to him. The popular perception of scientists is that they are on a search for meaning, trying to understand why we are here, what our purpose is. That is entirely a false perception but it’s one that has come to the fore again with the popular coverage of the search for the Higgs boson. It’s presented as the ultimate goal, the God particle, the reason why things are as they are and yet it is none of these things.

In his words:

I don’t have to know an answer, I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose,

and…

I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it’s much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong.

For him, uncertainty and doubt were the heart of the process:

We must discuss each question within the uncertainties that are allowed. And as evidence grows it increases the probability perhaps that some idea is right, or decreases it. But it never makes absolutely certain one way or the other. Now we have found that this is of paramount importance in order to progress. 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.

As Feynman would have it, scientists do what they do for the pleasure of finding things out, not for some spiritual search for complete understanding. On receipt of his Nobel Prize he said:

The prize is the pleasure of finding the thing out, the kick in the discovery, the observation that other people use it [my work]-those are the real things, the honors are unreal to me.

At the core of this all was his conviction that the scientific process arose out of integrity and that society had a duty to investigate and pursue the facts:

It might be true that you can be cured by the miracle of Lourdes. But if it is true it ought to be investigated. Why? To improve it. If it is true then maybe we can find out if the stars do influence life; that we could make the system more powerful by investigating statistically, scientifically judging the evidence objectively, more carefully. If the healing process works at Lourdes, the question is how far from the site of the miracle can the person, who is ill, stand? Have they in fact made a mistake and the back row is really not working? Or is it working so well that there is plenty of room for more people to be arranged near the place of the miracle? Or is it possible, as it is with the saints which have recently been created in the United States-there is a saint who cured leukemia apparently indirectly-that ribbons that are touched to the sheet of the sick person (the ribbon having previously touched some relic of the saint) increase the cure of leukemia-the question is, is it gradually being diluted? You may laugh, but if you believe in the truth of the healing, then you are responsible to investigate it, to improve its efficiency and to make it satisfactory instead of cheating.

He was pragmatic not an idealist. He understood that the curiosity he sought was not pervasive throughout society:

an interesting question of the relation of science to modem society is just that-why is it possible for people to stay so woefully ignorant and yet reasonably happy in modem society when so much knowledge is unavailable to them?

He lamented that society was not scientific, and science was relegated to the backroom:

The value of science remains unsung by singers, so you are reduced to hearing-not a song or a poem, but an evening lecture about it. This is not yet a scientific age.

For a period of his life he investigated the teaching of science in schools, recognising that children were not being taught that it was ok to be curious, to doubt or to experiment, traits that were essential to his vision of a scientific society. Instead they were being taught to remember definitions of things without understanding. In reference to a textbook that claimed that energy is what makes a dog walk or a car move he said:

I finally figured out a way to test whether you have taught an idea or you have only taught a definition. Test it this way: You say, “Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.” “Without using the word `energy,’ tell me what you know now about the dog’s motion.” You cannot. So you learned nothing except the definition. You learned nothing about science.

And, just as it’s not art to know the difference between an HB and a 3B pencil he stated:

It is not science to know how to change centigrade to Fahrenheit. It’s necessary, but it is not exactly science.

As I wrote at the start, I don’t really consider Feynman a hero in the normal sense of the word. There is much I don’t like about his personality and attitude, but I entirely respect his integrity. He was what he was. Much of what he said and wrote resonates with me and influences how I bring up my children. I teach them to doubt, to challenge,  to question and above all believe in the ignorance of experts.

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