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.