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Meaning of it All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist [Paperback]

Richard Phillips Feynman


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Richard Feynman was, until his death in 1988, the most famous physicist in the world. Only an infinitesimal part of the general population could understand his mathematical physics, but his outgoing and sunny personality, his gift for exposition, his habit of playing the bongo drums, and his testimony to the Presidential Commission on the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster turned him into a celebrity.

Freeman Dyson, of the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, called him 'the most original mind of his generation', while in its obituary The New York Times described him as 'arguably the most brilliant, iconoclastic and influential of the postwar generation of theoretical physicists'.

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I WANT TO ADDRESS myself directly to the impact of science on man's ideas in other fields, a subject Mr. John Danz particularly wanted to be discussed. Read the first page
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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  71 reviews
34 of 36 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Thoughts of a Great Scientist 2 April 2006
By Nathan Tyree - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Richard Feynman was one of this century's greatest physicists. His accomplishments were to numerous to list completely. However, a partial accounting will help to inform the reader of this man's importance.

Feynman was part of the famous (or infamous) Manhattan Project, which culminated in the first atomic bomb. He was a member of the expert panel that investigated the explosion of the space shuttle challenger. He taught at the California Institute of Technology. He received a Nobel prize for his work in quantum electrodynamics. He, in fact, changed the face of quantum electrodynamics. He played an important role in Quark theory. He created what were to be known as the Feynman diagrams. He won the Oersted Medal for teaching. He wrote textbooks, which are used in universities all over the country. He was a best selling author of popular works, such as Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman. He deciphered Mayan hieroglyphics. He was a talented drummer. He was a great story teller. He was a lover of games and tricks. He was a self taught safe cracker. He was a powerful lecturer. He was, above all, an endlessly curious fellow. This list can't even begin to note everything of importance that Feynman did, but it is a start.

The Meaning of it All collects three lectures that Feynman gave in April of 1963, at the University of Washington. These lectures were presented over three nights.

The lectures are, in order:

1. The Uncertainty of Science.

2. The Uncertainty of Values.

3. This Unscientific Age.

The first two lectures can actually be viewed as one talk, broken into two parts. The third veers off in a different direction. Let us look at the essays on an individual basis.

The first essay (or lecture, as it were), The Uncertainty of Science, begins with a simple definition of science. Feynman speaks plainly, and uses some repetition to drive his points home. He makes his ideas easily understandable. His definition will be easy to accept for most.

Feynman discuses whether science can have ethical value. That is, can science be considered good or evil? He concludes that science is neither. It cannot be seen as having a moral value. What becomes of the technology science creates, and the ways science is used by people, can become evil, or it can become a force for good. But this has nothing to do with science. Science, it seems, is a process. A process in which we endeavor to better understand our world.

Feynman attempts to address the problems of science. The chief problem, not only for science, but for knowledge in general, is that of certainty. Or rather, uncertainty. As anyone who has bothered to read Descartes knows: we can't be certain of anything (well, I can be certain that I exist; but the existence of the rest of humanity is open to question). Science cannot give us certainty. It can merely offer the best current explanation.

Feynman doesn't see this as truly problematic, but merely as an integral part of the nature of science. Science is an on going process, it is constant change and growth. In this context, relative uncertainty can be seen as a good thing. It forces us always to question, always to dig deeper. The quest for knowledge can never end, it can never be complete.

The Second essay is titled The Uncertainty of Values. In it Feynman looks at the conflict between religion and science. Like may before him, he concludes that this conflict is real. However, as Stephen Jay Gould would argue in later years, Feynman suggests that the conflict could be avoided if people could understand that religion and science govern separate areas of life, and attempt to deal with different sorts of questions. These two fields should be separated, and not touch each other.

Feynman discusses the fact that scientists tend to be atheists. This is a natural effect of education. One begins to doubt as they learn. If fact, the process of learning is largely about doubt to begin with. As the first essay posited, doubt is what drives science. It must also be what drives learning in general.

Feynman does not belittle those scientists that choose to maintain a theological belief. In fact, he believes that they must have developed a personal justification for their belief. However, he is quick to point out that no good scientist lets personal religious belief interfere with gains in scientific knowledge. If science intrudes on a religious belief (such as in the case of the Copernican system, and Evolution) it is religion that must change to fit the facts. Science cannot be altered to conform to religious belief.

The third, and longest essay: This Unscientific Age, is not well developed. It is a series of musings by Feynman about things that bother him. He is bothered by superstition, and pseudoscience. He rambles a bit, and doesn't seem to reach a coherent point. I agree with the things he has to say, but feel that he should have developed this speech as well as he developed the two before it.

It seems that Feynman was contracted to give three lectures, but was perfectly able to present his ideas in two well structured talks. This third is not as satisfying. However, it does not detract from the book. After those first two lovely and insightful essays, the third is "gravy", so to speak. We shouldn't expect more. Feynman has given us enough material for months of thought. That he chose to offer us this extra "bonus" essay, is equivalent to seeing a great film, and then having a good short film attached to the end. That the appended bit is not as good as the rest, does not effect our enjoyment of the great part. It is just an extra treat.

This ia a short book; only one-hundred-thirty-three pages. Feynman's conversational style makes it a quick, and entertaining read.

This is a great book. It should be required reading for students of science. For those interested in Feynman's life I also suggest his wonderful Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman, and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. These are great books, filled with personal essays by this great scientist, and curious character. For those interested in more technical writing, check out The Feynman Lectures on Physics, which have become an important text for serious college students working in the field of physics.

A final note:

When the world lost Richard Feynman, we lost one of our great minds. He is, and always will be, greatly missed. There are too few people like him. We can all learn a great deal from Feynman's legacy: his work, his attitude, and his unending humor.
44 of 48 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars for fellow embracers of uncertainty 4 Nov 1999
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
These 3 lectures intrigued me. Why did RPF give them? Probably because no-one imagined that he would accept the invitation. It might have been a sort of 'dare', to himself. In the event it seems to have worked out fairly well, if you read them aloud in imitation of his idiom.
The first lecture (uncertainty of science) is clear and to the point: if science is taken (as RPF took it) as the getting of understanding, then uncertainty is a precondition. If there is no end to understanding (ditto) then there is no arriving at certainty. This is Feynman in the confident mode of "The Character of Physical Law".
The second lecture (uncertainty of values) starts off with another fairly safe subject: the tension between religion and science. I liked the way it was cast as a young man's (no gender inclusiveness in 1963) dilemma. But then something funny happens. Feynman concludes, tentatively, that (a) it's difficult for a scientist to have the certainty of faith of religious people; (b) the ethical aspects of religion lie outside science; (c) they also lie outside religion. Now RPF's humanity starts to get in the way. The science that he loves doing requires humility of intellect. He recognizes that some religious people have something in parallel: humility of spirit. So he would like to know how one gets this second good thing without buying into a dogmatic faith. He can't see how to do it, which is of course an exercise in humility. Then he turns to politics and gets into a fine mess, as freely admitted a week later. RPF hates specious authority. And there was even more of that in USSR than in USA. So he ended up convincing himself that USSR was even worse than USA.
Finally, in lecture 3 (unscientific age) the 'meaning of it all' [NOT his title] breaks up entirely. He explains how he conned us (and himself) in week 2 by trying to derive a value judgement from unjustifiable assumptions. Having thus bankrupted himself, he spends the final hour jumping around. There are good anecdotes, revealing how RPF reacts to things he feels to be nonsense. All attempt at deriving his reactions from principles is abandoned, as impossible. I liked this most. Especially his guess at why the clock stopped at the minute when Arlene died. Just imagine trying to work that out when the love of your life has gone. Then imagine RPF waving his hands at an audience, as if he were explaining the parton model or the 2-slit experiment. As a conclusion, he holds up something that he happens to agree with: Pope John 23rd's encyclical on human duties and responsibilities. You can hear him saying to himself: bet they never thought I would say that! Final sentence: "I enjoyed myself." So did this reader.
Message: as uncertainty is a metaphysical necessity, we should naively embrace and enjoy it!
15 of 17 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Feynman at his best as teacher, scientist, citizen. 19 April 1998
By A Customer - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This is Richard Feynman for the concerned layman. These three lectures, given in 1963, are Feynman's attempt to elucidate the proper role of science in the issues of the day. The first lecture discusses the value of skepticism and uncertainty in the field of science itself. The second lecture concerns what light the scientific method might shine on religious and political thought. The third, and most interesting, lecture is an extemporaneous talk on the 'unscientific age' of the 1960s. You may be surprised to discover how little things have changed since then. If you are a Feynman fan, or if you are concerned about the proper role of science and critical thinking in society, you will love this book. Well-written, non-technical, entertaining. A brilliant scientist displays a deep and abiding concern for social issues.
27 of 35 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Feynman: "I have no idea." 25 Sep 2002
By Wesley L. Janssen - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
Beginning his first discourse, Feynman says that he will not offer anything "that could not easily have been said by the philosophers of the seventeenth century." He's right (Descartes and Pascal offered particularly interesting discussions of uncertainty). He says that he will "leave the more ridiculous of my statements for the next two lectures." He's right again, but it's interesting stuff. (Actually, he makes most of his "more ridiculous" statements in the second lecture).
The "meaning of it all"? As the eminent citizen-scientist states again and again, "I don't know." For Feynman this is cause for excitement. He finds ignorance to be the fuel of the scientist's imagination, and thus a wonderful thing. I recall Pascal's observation that "it is a wise ignorance which knows itself" and that in knowledge of one's ignorance it becomes apparent that "it is not certain that everything is uncertain." Feynman agrees but is clearly enamored with uncertainty; he finds precision in the sciences to be both highly desirable (he says "fun") and ultimately impossible (as did Pascal).
This small collection of transcribed lectures addresses the areas where the ideas of science overlap the ideas of philosophy, religion, and politics. As Feynman admits at the outset, he's out of his depth here. He's right. He describes agnosticism (uncertainty) and mislabels it "atheism" (both theism and atheism make truth claims -- that God does or does not exist -- and thus both claim a certainty); and he suggests that "Arab" is a religion. His differentiation between "ordinary" religion and "the elegant theology that belongs to it" is not unusual. His perception of religion as having three fundamental aspects -- metaphysical, ethical, and inspirational -- is fairly insightful. His suggestion that science has factually undermined the metaphysical aspect is simplistic and fraught with internal contradictions that Feynman seems to barely notice. Here he struggles to retain his uncertainty. The refrain that religion has no place for doubt presupposes what is, and what is not, acceptable to doubt. It also ignores thinkers like Augustine, Descartes, Pascal, Leibniz, Lewis, and so many other theists who examine the reality of uncertainty (or, the uncertainty of reality) more deliberately than does Feynman. The accusation might be reasonably made against "ordinary" religion but cannot be applied to the whole of theism. (The same accusation might be made against [Feynman's?] scientism). In a series of lectures in which I don't recall the mention of Plato, Aristotle, Descartes, Leibniz, Kant, Schrodinger, Godel, or almost any great scientific mind, Feynman cites the caustic dramatist, Voltaire, as an example of a great mind. Voltaire? Do we wonder why? ("certainly" not)
Where one might find Feynman's positions arguable or inadequately conceived, it's difficult to find them offensive in that whenever Feynman finds himself becoming too dogmatic he quickly offers another "I don't know." I understand why people like Feynman so. He's fun. Brash although self-effacing. Doesn't take himself too seriously. I see in other's reviews that Feynman followers do not consider this volume to be the physicist at his best. I believe they are right. (But, of course, "I don't know").
Feynman on the importance of ignorance:
"all of the things we say in science, all of the conclusions, are uncertain, because they are only conclusions. They are guesses .. and you cannot know.."
"I always live without knowing. That is easy. How you get to know is what I want to know."
6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Feynman on life, the universe, and everything 16 July 2000
By Primoz Peterlin - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
This short booklet is actually a typescript of a series of three John Danz lectures which professor Feynman delivered in April 1963 at the University of Washington. They show yet another of his many facets -- aside from the ingenious scientist, the wonderful science teacher and the hilarious storyteller -- one of an intellectual thinking of the interaction between the science and the society.

The thread that can be followed throughout the series of lectures is the value of scepticism. Scepticism and doubt kept science sane for centuries. After describing what he considers the essence of science, Feynman tries to answer several questions arising at the boundary between science and the society. Is there a conflict between science and religion? Can science be applied to moral and ethical questions? How can the inspirational value of religion be preserved when the belief in God is uncertain? In the last lecture, Feynman elaborates some abuses of statistics he encountered, like mixing up the probability with the possibility, a posteriori statistical reasoning etc.

The book will probably first and foremost attract Feynman devotees, who already have all the other books he has written and cannot miss one. The book also reflects some of the atmosphere of the cold war 60's, so it might be of some interest for those who either lived in that era or have some special historic interest in it. But aside from this, no collection of Feynman's papers published after his death has ever reached the mastership of books he actively prepared.
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