Thursday, May 19, 2011

Review: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, by Richard Feynman

By Richard Feynman? Well, it's a series of presentations and interviews given by him, so the byline is mostly correct. Although it includes some of his famous technical predictions (on the future of computing and nanotechnology) and indictments (his report on the Challenger disaster), it's basically non-technical, filled up with anecdotes and the wider variety of his thoughts. It contains most of what I had actually read or heard of Feynman before I picked up some of his physics lectures the year before last. I saw the video following his report on the space shuttle in materials science class back when I was a freshman—the one where he dunks the o-ring into the ice water—and thought it was a bit of grandstanding actually. I was more impressed with the report statement this time around, which seems less out to impress and more to rather boldly condemn the deserving. I'd read the same snippet of Cargo Cult Science on the internet a half dozen times, which seems to get at something profound, and I remain ambivalent about the plenty of room on the bottom speech, as pull-quotes have appeared in front of approximately forty bazillion talks or review papers in the past 20 years. And, right, I am sure that Feynman diagrams got mentioned in passing somewhere near the end of physics III, where they wrapped up a survey of the stuff that was part of the field but you probably wouldn't need unless you chose to study it. And that's it. I was aware of who he was, knew something of his general contributions, and had heard of his mercurial approach to life. The influence on scientists and rationalists of my acquaintance has tended to sneak in here and there.

So let me tell you why I am disappointed. It just makes my own quasi-public bloviating seem so pointless. Maybe it should be validating, but the science philosophy you'll find here is of a tune with what I've been occasionally wailing about for more or less the entirety of time I've held this blog: accepting doubt as part of an honest worldview; evidence-based thinking; the dynamism between theory and measurement; approximations and representations pitted against objective reality; inquiry as a sort of moral imperative; informed wiseassery. What more does that leave me to comment about it? And I am forced to ask: how much debt does my own struggling worldview owe to this guy? Obviously I've read and interacted with many folks who were influenced by him. How corrupted am I by the company I've kept? Do we all think the same? What a depressing thought. (I don't actually think it's quite right: here's only one of many giants who asked the questions I, and you, happened to land in the middle of a public answering.)

Feynman's science philosophy was clearly important to him, but from these interviews, espousing it was more of a byproduct of his life than a motivation. (He always had quantum electrodynamics to fall back on, after all, not to mention rhythm.) He didn't read a lot of the stuff (and I still wonder how much it shows, really), dismissed what little he did read as an elaborate exercise in simplistic thinking, but for all that, he did do a lot of philosophizing. If this collection is representative of all his interviews, then it's a big part of what the public wanted to hear from him, and what we took away, and so he gets the role by default. It's a shame, almost, that he never really took it as far as he took his science, and while he was willing to march up and acknowledge the big moral questions of his career, I think he chose to leave some of the difficult ones hanging. Was he haunted by his role in the Manhattan project? He has a story about it that he liked to tell (he must have been asked about it a lot), and from it, I think the answer was yes. He tells us of the distinction between the thrill of the intellectual work, and of being a part of a community of exceptional and quirky scientists, and the late-dawning realization of the bomb's implications, which might be the end of all things. But acknowledgement is not judgment. Was there shame, regret, disillusionment? I can't really tell from the writing. In various of these interviews, Feynman would rather set judgment and decisions apart from the scientific process, and I think that's a fair peace, if it's a valid one. But if your research is driven with an intent to do massive harm, then should you do it? He doesn't seem to be the guy to indulge in very much self recrimination, and what the hell, he was really young at that time. By the time he challenged the NASA higher-ups later in life, his view of managerial competence had obviously dimmed. In the last segment of the book, he makes some similar observations on religion, noting, diplomatically, that its matters of spiritual fulfillment are, and should probably remain, unchallenged by science, but that faith exceeded its power of natural explanation some centuries ago. He avoids reaching a deeper conclusion about this, but maybe he's only offering a properly skeptical interpretation, and leaving the actual judgment to the audience. Maybe that's the best thing an honest thinker can do.

It must have been a big score to interview Feynman about religion. But for a few vestigial cultural trappings, I don't get Feynman as any kind of deist, but in ways he thinks like one, really one of these wonder-in-the-miracle-of-god's-creation types. He is infectious when he's talking about the surprising elegance of the universe, and the surprisingly deep logical reach of mathematics, and the underappreciated poetry of these things. He talks about his early mentors, especially his father, who taught him to approach an understanding of the world with appreciation, playfulness and creativity. And speaking of cargo cults, you could do all the things his dad did with little Richard, and you still wouldn't get a Feynman--any more than freezing over your yard and strapping the skates onto Junior gets you a little Gretzky--there was no doubt some outstanding nature that came together with the outstanding nurture. You could see where it grew from: here's the rare scientist who you'd imagine could get himself to devalue his own beliefs or theories with pure objectivity, given the proper evidence, possibly because he was humble enough, or had a knack to see things clearly from several different approaches, or because it was easy and exciting for him to reformulate his understanding of things.

I've mentioned that I picked this to read paired against that David Foster Wallace romp, Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, which looks at childhood and other power structures with every intention of holding the reader down, and biting him back, a wit which was the definition of mordant. Since both were broken up into shorts, I basically shuffled them together, like an angel/devil sort of thing on each shoulder. One guy felt paralyzed by doubt, the other energized by it. Feynman's wit was more the force of inspiration, clear thinking, and optimism in new discoveries, which he retained even after catching a glimpse of how people and nature really work.


Keifus said...

Just a little bit behind on these things.

Michael said...

Good stuff, and thanks Keifus.

I think he resisted the showy ice water O-ring demo, but Gen Kutyna convinced him to do it. Been awhile since I read the book, but I seem to recall Feynman feeling, after-the-fact, that Kutyna had guided him through the whole investigation and was using RP to say/write/do things that he couldn't because of his military career.

Not saying Feynman wasn't a show-off, I think he was. But I think he liked to pick those spots where he'd display his talents, rather than being guided to it like w Challenger.

Feynman discusses the Manhattan Project.

Keifus said...

Appreciate that link. A good deal more is conveyed in the speaking--I was thinking about that as I wrote this up.