Dennis Littrell's Reviews > The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out by Richard Feynman
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Apr 17, 10

bookshelves: physics

Feynman, Richard P. The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (1999)
Brilliance and charm: Feynman as a teacher

I very much enjoyed this entertaining and delightful collection of lectures, talks and essays by the world-renown and sorely missed Professor Feynman, Nobel Prize winning physicist, idiosyncratic genius and one of the great men of the twentieth century.

I particularly enjoyed the subtle yet unmistakable way he scolded the people at NASA for putting their political butts before the safety of the space program they were managing in his famous "Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry." But the chapter that really sold me on Richard P. Feynman, boy wonder grown up, was "It's as Simple as One, Two, Three" in which he explores the ability to do two things at once through an experiment with counting. Such a delight he took in learning as a kid from his friend Bernie that we sometimes think in pictures and not in words. And then the further delight he took in learning that some people count with their inner voice (himself), and others (his friend John Tukey) count by visualization.

I was also loved the chapter, "What is Science?", a talk to science teachers in which Feynman demonstrates that the real difference between science and other ways of "knowing" (e.g., religion) is the ability to doubt. In science we learn, as Feynman said he himself learned, to live with doubt. But in the religious way of "knowing" doubt is intolerable. Feynman gives an evolutionary illustration of why doubt is essential. He begins with the "intelligent" animals "which can learn something from experience (like cats)." At this stage, he says, each animal learned "from its own experience." Then came some animals that could learn more rapidly and from the experience of others by watching. Then came something "completely new...things could be learned by one animal, passed on to another, and another, fast enough that...[the knowledge:] was not lost to the race...," and could be passed on to a new generation.

Now, let's stop for a moment. What a great teacher does--and here and elsewhere Feynman proves himself to be a great teacher (although he said he doubted that!)--is to guide the student just enough so that the student arrives at or anticipates the point of the lesson before the teacher gets there. What is the punch line of this lesson for the science teachers? Namely this: with the passing of knowledge from one generation to the next it became also possible to pass on false knowledge or "mistaken ideas." Feynman calls this a "disease."

"Then a way of avoiding the disease was discovered. This is to doubt that what is being passed from the past is in fact true, and to try to find out ab initio, again from experience, what the situation is, rather than trusting the experience of the past..."

In other words, don't blindly accept the word of authority. Test it for yourself! And this is what science does. It tests and it tests again, and it doubts and it doubts--always.

I loved this because one of my dictums is "always guide the experts"--the lawyer, the doctor, the insurance adjustor, et al. Always guide them because, although they are the experts, you're the one who really cares. To this I can now add that you should also doubt the experts because even though they are experts they can be wrong. And, as Feynman showed in his report on the Challenge disaster, they can be wrong for reasons that have nothing to do with their expertise.

I also liked the commencement address he gave at Caltech on "Cargo Cult Science...and How to Not Fool Yourself." We fool ourselves a lot. The managers at NASA fooled themselves; what's their names of cold fusion delusion fame fooled themselves. Feynman has noted that he has fooled himself. Science, he avers, is a tool to help us to not fool ourselves. He is profoundly right. Without science we would go on fooling ourselves with all sorts of mumbo-jumbo, "revealed" religiosity and scientific-seeming stuff such as Rhine's ESP experiments some years ago at Duke, the entire litany of New Age pseudobabblese, and--yes!--such stuff as the amazing Cargo Cult Science in which some Pacific Islanders, in an attempt to attract the big birds of the sky with their cargoes of goodies, built "nests," that is, landing fields with empty cargo boxes, and faux towers, etc. in the hope that the planes flying overhead would see them and land on their island. Feynman has taken this as an example of pseudoscience, that is, behavior in the form of science without the substance of science, without the "integrity" of science.

The integrity of science, Feynman advised the graduates, demands that all the information about the experiment be given, even detrimental facts. Feynman contrasts this idea with that of advertizing in which only that which makes the product look good is given.

When reading this book it helps to imagine that one is listening to Feynman speak. The text includes repetitions and the omissions which he no doubt conveyed with his voice, expression or gesture. When one reads him this way, some of Feynman's endearing charm and the gentle, self-effacing humor for which he is famous comes through. Here's a joke from pages 206-207: He is at Esalen in a hot bath with another man and a girl. The man begins to massage the girl's foot. He feels something in her big toe. He asks his instructor, "Is that the pituitary?" The girl says, "No, that's not the way it feels." Feynman injects, "You're a hell of a long way from the pituitary, man." And they both look at him. "I had blown my cover, you see--and she said, It's reflexology. So I closed my eyes and appeared to be meditating." Yes, Feynman is a long way from reflexology.
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