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The Dubious Pleasure of Yet More Feynman

Robert Root-Bernstein

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard Feynman. Richard Feynman. 320 pp. Helix Books/Perseus Books, 1999. $24.

What should we teach people about science? "I think we should teach them wonders and that the purpose of knowledge is to appreciate wonders even more." What is understanding? "Test it this way: You say, 'Without using the new word which you have just learned, try to rephrase what you have just learned in your own language.' [If] you cannot [then] you learned nothing except the definition.... To learn a mystic formula for answering questions is very bad." What is the first principle that must guide a scientist? "You must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool.... I'm talking about a specific, extra type of integrity that is not lying, but bending over backwards to show how you're maybe wrong.... One example of the principle is this: If you've made up your mind to test a theory ... you should always decide to publish it whichever way it comes out. If we only publish results of a certain kind, we can make [any] argument look good. We must publish both kinds of results." What is unique about science? "Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers of the preceding generation.... As a matter of fact I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts."

If anyone is in doubt, these are Richard Feynman gems, mined from the latest collection of his essays and lectures, The Pleasure of Finding Things Out. Anyone looking for an antidote to the concept of science as a practical method of finding truth or an axiomatic description of reality and a path to positive knowledge will find these essays invigorating. Feynman claims to be sure of nothing: "I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong." After all, "The imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man." Nor does he believe that the scientific "method" (the existence of which he questions) confers any great enlightenment upon its practitioners: "I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." This is vintage Feynman.

Unfortunately, the selected material is inconsistent, the volume badly organized and targeted at no obvious audience. Feynman fans will be dismayed to find that several of the essays, such as "Los Alamos from Below," "The Smartest Man in the World" (an Omni magazine interview) and "Richard Feynman Builds a Universe" rehash material that Feynman described in almost identical words in Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman and What Do You Care What Other People Think? The material in The Pleasures of Finding Things Out has already been used by Christopher Sykes in No Ordinary Genius: The Illustrated Richard Feynman. There is only one previously unpublished item in the whole volume, and that is "Richard Feynman Builds a Universe," an undated interview carried out by an un-named individual under the auspices of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. It, unfortunately, yields no surprises.

With so many Feynman books readily available, the real interest of the volume resides in ready access to classic Feynman lectures, such as "Computing Machines in the Future," which predicted the invention of quantum computing, "There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom," in which Feynman kicked off the micro-miniaturizing revolution, and "Minority Report to the Space Shuttle Challenger Inquiry." Also of interest are Feynman's thoughts on the social value of science, its philosophy and its relation to religion. Here we see Feynman grappling uncertainly with huge problems neither he nor nor anyone else can solve definitively, but with characteristic clarity, Feynman at least allows us to understand the nature of the problems, the extent of our ignorance and the wonder of it all. But these essays were all targeted by Feynman at well-trained scientists and are unlikely to appeal to the broad audiences for which the other essays in the volume were intended. The most frustrating aspect of the book is that the essays appear higgledy-piggledy, technical essays separated by popularizations and interspersed with ones about religion and values. You never know what's coming next or why.

In short, I don't recommend this as an introduction to Feynman. There are much better books for that. I do recommend it for fans who want to read seminal material on the level of Feynman's The Character of Physical Law. There's plenty to chew on even if you skip half the essays.


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