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Valuable insights from Richard Feynman
on 14 February 2009
Having read Genius: Richard Feynman and Modern Physics I'd discovered the fascinating work and life of Richard Feynman and was keen to learn more. This is the second of two books Feynman wrote. I happened to come across this book first and perhaps I've read them in the wrong order, no matter.
The book is autobiographical, but in a typical spirit of nonconformity is not a biography. Rather it is a collection of anecdotes written about episodes in Feynman's life. The first half of the book is a selection of these short stories, in no particular order, each describing in a matter of fact fashion an aspect of Feynman's life. Each as a side effect provides an insight to his thinking and attitude to life and learning. Clearly this material was a key resource for James Gleick's work and I had the feeling that these were stories which didn't find their way into Feynman's previous book `Surely You're Joking Mr Feynman'. As a consequence Gleick's book provides a more rounded and complete picture which ties these snippets together. However Feynman's book has more to offer.
The second half of the book has a detailed account of the work on investigating the cause of the Challenger Shuttle disaster. This description will be of interest to anyone who wants to find out the technical details of just what went wrong, but more interestingly has some fascinating insights into the afflictions that can infect the thinking of large organisations. In the case of NASA this led to mistaken understanding of safety and risk, which when compounded by poor communication between management and staff created a widespread blind spot, which extended well outside NASA, about the challenge and dangers of space flight. There are lessons here for any organisation, which even if they don't surface as safety issues, will undoubtedly have impacts in some aspect of the organisation's performance.
On a personal note, I've left the best bit of the book until last, appropriately because it is the last nine pages. Here is reproduced a public address given in 1955 to the National Academy of Sciences titled `The Value of Science'. Feynman gives a brilliant description of the absolute and essential role of exploration in creating advance, and the fact that non-scientists have little comprehension of the real learning process by which this advance is made. For me this short concluding section of the book was worth the price alone, illustrated by the books concluding paragraph..
"It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of this freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations."
In short, if you want to find out about Feynman, Genius is a more complete read, having read that you may be inspired to read this book to find out more. However if you want to learn of lessons from the Challenger disaster, or simply read the description of exploration in `The Value of Science',this is a book well worth reading.