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Feynmaniacs Should Read this Review, Skip Lecture Collection, Save 22 Simoleons

David Goodstein

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. Richard P. Feynman. 122 pp. Addison-Wesley, 1998. $22.

If you go to the science section of your local bookstore, chances are you'll find a shelf full of books by or about Richard Feynman. He seems to be endlessly fascinating to scientists and nonscientists alike. I confess to having co-written one of those books, intended as a tribute to my friend and colleague at Caltech for more than 20 years.

The meaning of some of itClick to Enlarge Image

Before I knew him personally, however, in April of 1963, he came to Seattle to give three public lectures under the general title "A Scientist Looks at Society," part of a series of guest lectures at the University of Washington known as the John Danz Lectures. I was at the time a graduate student in physics at U-Dub (as we called the U. of W.), and Feynman, although he had not yet won his Nobel Prize, was already a legendary figure. A visit to U-Dub by the great man was a very exciting occasion.

Addison-Wesley has now published Feynman's Danz Lectures under the inappropriate title The Meaning of It All. I read through the review copy that was sent to me, anxious to find those vivid moments that, even after 35 years, stand out in cherished memory. One was the point at which, much to the delight of Feynman and the rest of his audience, the entire psychology department stood as one and marched out in a huff. (Of course it may not have happened that way. This is a 35-year-old memory we're talking about.) I found it in the third lecture when Feynman referred to psychoanalysts and psychiatrists as "witch doctors," because all their complicated ideas about ids and egos and so on, accumulated in almost no time at all, couldn't possibly be right. He also said that, if he were a member of a tribe and he were sick he would go to the witch doctor, because the witch doctor knows more about illness than anyone else, but, if memory serves, that was after the psychologists were already gone. In the next few pages he also savages professors of English pretty thoroughly, but probably there were none of those present in the first place.

Another zinger I've repeated often (I have spent an entire career shamelessly stealing ideas from Richard Feynman): While making the point, often lost even on scientists, that you can't verify a theory using the same data that suggested the theory (if only epidemiologists would catch on to this!), he suddenly seems to change the subject and says: "I had the most remarkable experience this evening. While coming in here I saw license plate ANZ 912. Calculate for me, please, the odds that of all the license plates in the state of Washington I should happen to see ANZ 912." So much for a priori probabilities of unlikely events.

Feynman had been invited to give a series of public lectures. In his mind, "public" meant nonscientists, even though most of his audience probably were scientists (like me, for example). His general idea was, first to try to explain what science and scientific thinking were about, and then to say what a person who thought in that way might have to say about matters like government and religion. So far, so good.

The first lecture, the one that was supposed to explain what scientific thinking is about, Feynman called "The Uncertainty of Science." The uncertainty he had in mind was not that of Heisenberg, but rather that of Karl Popper: that scientists should be skeptical of their own theories, or in other words, have an open mind. As with most scientists who profess to follow Popper, he consistently refutes himself throughout his lectures.

To Feynman, science has three parts: the facts or body of knowledge, the method or process that we use to establish those facts, and the applications of science, that is to say, technology. To him it's an article of faith that technology follows science. He would regard technology arising on its own as something akin to the Virgin Birth (we'll get to religion shortly). But his real point is that technology is only incidental to the importance of science. He vents his fury on journalists who report (poorly) each new advance in biology, then declare that it will lead to a cure for cancer.

In the second lecture, called "The Uncertainty of Values," he sets out to apply the scientist's open mind to conventional religion (he swears off "fancy theology"; he's interested in everyday religious belief) and to the Cold War struggle between East and West. In each case, despite repeated protestations of uncertainty, he winds up firmly taking sides. For example, on Khrushchev's comment that "modern art" looks like it was painted by the tail of a jackass, Feynman's comment is, "He should know."

Feynman on religion is interesting mainly because he clearly feels the need to tread very carefully for fear of offending too many people. He divides religion up into three parts (he seems to like dividing things into three parts): the metaphysical (creation myths and so on), the ethical and the inspirational. His analysis is that science undermines the metaphysical part but has no effect at all on the ethical, because, in fact, scientists have pretty much the same ethical values as everyone else. He laments the fact that the undermining of the metaphysical takes a lot of air out of the sails of the inspirational part, but his view is that the picture of the universe presented by science is pretty inspirational itself. On the delicate question of whether we are justified after all in believing in God, he gives us the one paragraph in the entire book that justifies the title The Meaning of It All:

It is a great adventure to contemplate the universe, beyond man, to contemplate the universe without man, as it was in a great part of its long history and as it is in a great majority of places. When this objective view is finally attained, and the mystery and majesty are fully appreciated to then turn the objective eye back on man viewed as matter, to see life as part of this universal mystery of greatest depth, is to sense an experience which is very rare and very exciting. It usually ends in laughter and a delight in the futility of trying to understand what this atom in the universe is, this thing—atoms with curiosity—that looks at itself and wonders why it wonders. Well, these scientific views end in awe and mystery, lost at the edge in uncertainty, but they appear to be so deep and so impressive that the theory that it was all arranged as a stage for God to watch man's struggle for good and evil seems inadequate.

He starts the third lecture, "This Unscientific Age," with the announcement that he had used up all his organized ideas in the first two. There are a number of other points that bother him, however, and those he will discuss here. This is the lecture that had in it both of the moments I remembered and along the way another that I don't know how I could have forgotten. He tells the story of a snake-oil salesman he heard speak in Atlantic City, selling bottles without the legally required warning labels. By the end of his talk he's gotten his gullible audience to affix the labels to the bottles. "This," Feynman announces, "is what I did in the second Danz lecture." He had started out by claiming an open mind on, for example, politics, but by the end, there was a label on his bottle.

There are, then, some nuggets of pure Feynman gold in this book. So why did it take so long to get published? The answer is that, according to the University of Washington Press, they tried strenuously at the time to get Feynman to permit them to publish, but he wasn't having it. And he was right. Feynman in person was electrifying, no matter what he spoke about. He could say more with body language alone than most people can extract from the Oxford English Dictionary. But on paper, dealing with matters far from his comfort zone, Feynman is quite another matter.

The book is badly dated and atrociously edited. Many pages make the reader squirm with embarrassment. Sometimes he's just a little off the point. He trashes those English professors not for the relentless banality of most literary criticism but for not producing a rational scheme of spelling. At other times it's just not the right stuff. Feynman doing battle with the earnest ladies of the Altadena Americanism Center has some of the same spirit as the famous stories he liked to tell about himself, but it's neither racy nor funny, just quaint and somewhat silly. And there are many references to names that had meaning in 1963 but not anymore. Who was Mr. Nakhrosov? Mr. Anderson? (He was somehow mistreated by the American military.) Do you remember what "the farm problem" was? The editors do nothing to help us in these matters. Addison-Wesley's attitude is, clearly, take the money and run.

The publication of this book now, with Dick Feynman no longer here to defend himself, does not honor his wishes, and it does not honor his memory. You'll find this book on the Feynman shelf in your bookstore. Don't buy it.

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