Encore post: Feynman and the inconceivable nature of nature


[This is an Encore Post, from August 2007 — just as it appeared then.  See especially the links on textbook selection processes, and “cargo cult” science, at the bottom.]

NOVA had a couple of good programs on Richard Feynman that I wish I had — it had never occurred to me to look at YouTube to see what people might have uploaded.

I ran into this one:

Richard Feynman struck my consciousness with the publication of his quite humorous autobiography, Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman. I thought it was a wonderful book, full of good character portraits of scientists as I saw them in my undergraduate days, only more famous ones. He followed that with What Do You Care What Other People Think?

By then, of course, Feynman was one of my heroes. His stories are useful in dozens of situations — his story of joining the samba bands in Rio testify to the joy of living, and the need for doing new things. Brazil was also the place he confronted the dangers of rote learning, when students could work equations perfectly for examples in the book — which they had memorized — but they couldn’t understand real world applications, such as describing how the sunlight coming off the ocean at Ipanema was so beautiful.

Feynman wrote about creationism, and about the dangers of voodoo science, in his now-famous essay on “Cargo cult science” — it’s so famous one has difficulty tracking down the facts to confirm the story.

Feynman’s stories of his wife, and her illness, and his love for her, were also great inspirations. Romance always gets me.

I failed to track him closely enough. During the run of the President’s Commission on Americans Outdoors, we had the misfortune of having scheduled a hearing in Orlando on January 30 (or maybe 29), 1986. We had hoped that the coincidental launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger on January 28 might boost our press response. Of course, the Challenger exploded. Our hearing went on as planned (we had a tough schedule to meet). The disaster affected our staff a lot, those who were in Florida, and the rest of us in Washington where many of us had been on the phone to Florida when the disaster occurred.

Feynman’s appointment to the commission studying the disaster was a brilliant move, I thought. Our schedule, unfortunately, kept me tied up on almost every day the Challenger commission met. So I never did walk the three blocks down the street to meet Feynman, thinking there would be other opportunities. He was already fatally ill. He died on February 15, 1988. I missed a chance of a lifetime.

We still have Feynman’s writings. We read the book aloud to our kids when they were younger. James, our youngest and a senior this year, read Surely You’re Joking again this summer, sort of a warmup to AP physics and his search for a college.  [2009 Update:  James is studying physics in the wilds of Wisconsin, finals week at Lawrence University next week — study hard, and good luck, James!]

And we still have audio and video. Remembering Feynman makes even the most avidly atheist hope for an afterlife, just to get a chance to hear Feynman explain what life was really all about, and how the universe really works.

Other notes:

Tip of the old scrub brush to Charismatic Megafauna.

3 Responses to Encore post: Feynman and the inconceivable nature of nature

  1. […] Feynman and the inconceivable nature of nature […]

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  2. twoblueday says:

    This is, I think, my third comment on your blog. I’ll repeat, for the last time, that I came from Cafe Philos, is that a sufficient introduction?

    I watched this video with a big smile on my face. What Mr. Feynman was talking about was something I think about, a lot. In idle moments, I try to imagine every type of wave (particle), and iteration of such types, passing through me, or bouncing off me, or being absorbed by me, at any moment. The inconceivable nature of nature indeed!

    I do not claim that I could have articulated it as well as Mr. Feynman, no. Thanks for posting this.

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  3. Mike says:

    One of most thoughtful Christmas gifts ever given me was his book Surely, You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman as you list in this post. I had known of Feynman, and admired him among many, but the intimate portrayals in this book were fun to read.

    It’s funny that the conservatives are practicing a certain sort of “cargo cult” now, not only in global warming but also in threatening to earn less so that they pay less in taxes. They are going “Galt,” threatening to pull back on their earnings, forgetting that the work that they don’t do will be done by their competitors….

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