Monday, March 19, 2018

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

This book, a selection of short items by Richard Feynman, is similar to "Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", but is somewhat less autobiographical and discusses his work in slightly greater detail. There is some overlap between the two books, with two chapters in common. The foreword, by Freeman Dyson, is eloquent and touching, describing how awestruck Dyson became when he worked with Feynman at Cornell University in 1947, and he compares his relationship with Feynman to the relationship between Ben Jonson and William Shakespeare. He and Jonson were the academics, whereas Feynman and Shakespeare were the boisterous geniuses. Strangely, Dyson has outlived both Feynman and Stephen Hawking, and is now 94.

My reaction is less intense than it was to the previous book, but I did find things in it that I liked. To comprehend the reach of Feynman's intellect, you have to realize that it was he who invented nanotechnology decades ago, and it is still a productive field now. The chapter I liked best, "What Is Science?," is a lecture that he gave to science teachers and discusses how his father influenced him by taking him for walks in the woods, and, rather than simply naming things, encouraged him to think about the processes taking place and how things worked. His father was a uniform salesman and, feeling that he had not lived up to his potential, encouraged Richard from the earliest age. I particularly liked this paragraph:

We have many studies in teaching, for example, in which people make observations and they make lists and they do statistics, but they do not thereby become established science, established knowledge. They are merely an imitative form of science – like South Sea Islanders making airfields, radio towers, out of wood, expecting a great airplane to arrive. They even build wooden airplanes of the same shape as they see in the foreigners' airfields around them, but, strangely, they don't fly. The result of this pseudoscientific imitation is to produce experts, which many of you are – experts. You teachers who are really teaching children at the bottom of the heap, maybe you can doubt the experts once in a while. Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.

In the chapter, "Richard Feynman Builds a Universe," he recounts a seminar that he was asked to present by physicist Eugene P. Wigner when he began his graduate studies at Princeton University:

I started to prepare the thing. Then Wigner came to me and said that he thought that the work was important enough that he's made special invitations to the seminar to Professor Pauli, who was a great professor of physics visiting from Zurich; to Professor von Neumann, the world's greatest mathematician; to Henry Norris Russell, the famous astronomer; and to Albert Einstein, who was living near there. I must have turned absolutely white or something, because he said to me, "Now don't get nervous about it, don't be worried about it. First of all, if Professor Russell falls asleep, don't feel bad, because he always falls asleep at lectures. When Professor Pauli nods as you go along, don't feel good, because he always nods, he has palsy," and so on. This kind of calmed me down a bit, but I was still worried. So Professor Wheeler promised me that he would answer all the questions and that all I would do would be to give the lecture. 

So I remember coming in – you can imagine that first time, it was like going through fire. I had written all the equations on the blackboard way ahead of time so that all the blackboards were full of equations. People don't want so many equations...they want to understand the ideas better. And then I remember getting up to talk and there were these great men in the audience and it was frightening. And I can still see my own hands as I pulled out the papers from the envelope that I had them in. They were shaking. As soon as I got the paper out and started to talk, something happened to me which has always happened since and which is a wonderful thing. If I'm talking physics, I love the thing, I think only about physics, I don't worry where I am; I don't worry about anything. And everything went very easily. I simply explained the whole business as best I could. I didn't think about who was there. I was thinking only about the problem I was explaining. And then at the end when the question time came, I had nothing to worry about because Professor Wheeler was going to answer them. Professor Pauli stood up – he was sitting next to Professor Einstein. He said – "I do not think this theory could be right because of this and this and that and the other thing and so forth, don't you agree, Professor Einstein?" Einstein said "No-o-o-o," and that was the nicest no I ever heard.

Besides the above, there are passages relating to Feynman's discomfort with the humanities. There seem to be two parts to this. On the one hand, his mind was attuned to problem solving, and his training was in engineering and physics. This made him impatient with unempirical theorizing. On the other hand, he seems to have been humiliated by people who looked askance at his poor grammar and New York accent. There is the fact that he was rejected by his first choice for undergraduate study, Columbia University. He never read much in the humanities, which he came to associate with pretentious people who are lacking in rigor. He thought that their serious demeanor was artificial. Although I fall more into the humanities camp than the science camp, I tend to agree with him. I spent several years studying philosophy, and I now see it more as a cultural phenomenon than as a useful field. To be sure, scientists, like all humans, are susceptible to particular forms of myopia, but if you compare them as a group to intellectuals, who come mostly from the humanities, they look pretty good. If you contrast scientists with ordinary people, the difference becomes stark. The American scientists who were prominent in Feynman's day made the contributions that allowed the country to become the technological leader of the world. Looking at the U.S. now, with the marginalization of scientists, it is beginning to resemble an incompetently governed autocracy. The public intellectuals here have barely put a dent in the ascent of Donald Trump. Current conditions are a far cry from 1939, when Albert Einstein signed a letter to Franklin D. Roosevelt recommending the development of nuclear weapons; six years later, World War II ended with the bombs at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Today, scientists seem unable to convince the political leaders in Washington that climate change is real.

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