February 28, 2004

Discovering Feynman

"Physics is like sex. Sure, it may give some practical results, but that's not why we do it." - Richard P. Feynman

The name rang a bell, but I really knew zip about Richard Feynman until a year ago. I suppose one reason is that I avoided science courses like the plague during my college years, and the Nobel Prize winning physicist had remained under my radar ever since. A friend lent me Feynman's most popular book a while back and I just finished reading Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! this week, nearly 20 years after it was published.

Feynman has a significant cult following as I quickly discovered at www.Feynman.com. Not many scientists have fan websites, much less N.Y. Times Bestsellers. But Feynman, who died in 1988 at age 70, is as well known and popular on the strength of his eccentricity and charisma, as he is for his scholarly contributions in Quantum Electrodynamics. And it was primarily this book of personal anecdotes that vaulted him to notoriety outside of academia. It's no wonder his students loved him, and that he is remembered fondly. The guy was a genius and a prankster. A serious scientist and an adventurous rogue.

During his work for the Manhattan Project, the team that developed the first atomic bomb at Los Alamos, he became a self-taught safecracker, demonstrating to his superiors how insecure were the secrets to the most powerful weapon ever devised. When his first wife died young, he liked to run with the nightclub crowd wherever he went. He befriended Las Vegas showgirls, relaxing in his own booth, drinking only moderately, doing his calculations on cocktail napkins and hoping to get lucky.

He taught himself Portugese so he could lecture Brazilian students in their native tongue. He learned how to draw, and was soon selling prints in art galleries. He learned to play the bongos, and was soon performing with a musical troupe. He smoked pot. He experimented with sensory deprivation. His life was a quest summarized in the title of another of his books: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out and the Meaning of it All.

I found myself admiring Feynman as I read his stories, because he constantly challenged people to deal with reality, with demonstrable fact. He was a politically incorrect character. Whether it was critiquing the educational system in Brazil, evaluating science textbooks, or pointing out the lack of security at Los Alamos, he always spoke truth to power, and did it with a touch of mischievousness and humor. A book reviewer had this to say about Feynman's insistence on dealing in reality:

...underneath all the merriment simmers a running commentary on what constitutes authentic knowledge: learning by understanding, not by rote; refusal to give up on seemingly insoluble problems; and total disrespect for fancy ideas that have no grounding in the real world. Feynman himself had all these qualities in spades..

And this quote from Feynman reveals his belief that learning "why" and "how" are more important that simply "what":

You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing -- that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something.

Finally, two additional quotes from Feynman on Science and the scientific method:

"Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself - and you are the easiest person to fool."

More Feynman links:

Feynman on the WWW

Dr. Richard P. Feynman

Richard Feynman Link Page

Posted by dan at February 28, 2004 11:13 PM