The pleasure of finding things out
April 17, 2006 3:22 PM   Subscribe

The pleasure of finding things out. If you only watch one documentary on the subject of science this year, let is be this one. The brilliant physicist Richard Feynman is interviewed about a host of issues, such as [more inside].
posted by koenie (46 comments total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
  • Why scientific analysis of a subject does not diminish its beauty.
  • How he was educated, by his father as well as by himself.
  • What it means to really know something.
  • On the absurdity of caring too much what other people think about you.
  • His reasons for working on the development of the A-Bomb.
  • How important playing and having fun is in science and discovery.
  • His thoughts about being awarded the Nobel prize for his work in Quantum Electrodynamics.
  • How scientific discovery is the ultimate exercise in reverse engineering.
  • On the beauty of simplicity.
  • Why mathematics is an essential tool in physics.
  • How one of the most important problem in physics at the time was to derive mathematically meaningful results from an already defined theory.
  • On ways to educate different personality types.
  • Why he thinks the social sciences are essentially pseudoscientific.
  • How science is essentially being curious about the world.
  • His take on religion, uncertainty and purpose.
posted by koenie at 3:22 PM on April 17, 2006

I was going to post this as well. Very engaging view of the man, and neat how it's edited so that the interviewer stays almost completely out of the way. If you've read the popular books many of the stories will be familiar (his son's 'word bag', the spinning plate in the cafeteria) but it's a treat to hear them from Feynman himself.
posted by Turtles all the way down at 3:25 PM on April 17, 2006

His voice...I kept expecting him to say 'I even got... when I was, when I was very small... I even got lost in Coney Island. But they found me, on the... on, on... on the beach. And we used to sleep on the beach here, sleep over night. They don't do it anymore... things changed...see. They don't sleep anymore on the beach.'
posted by driveler at 3:37 PM on April 17, 2006

Interesting - the content has come from "An initiative of students of Netaji Subhas Institute of Technology (NSIT), Delhi". They promise to have more Feynman content up soon, with some weird statements about "Don't ask us to provide an mp3".
posted by Aknaton at 4:02 PM on April 17, 2006

that guys the best.

and apparently he loves orange juice.
posted by tsarfan at 4:04 PM on April 17, 2006

Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman is one of my all-time favorite books. Bad connection now, but I'll definitely check this out.
posted by gsteff at 4:08 PM on April 17, 2006

As a pre-service science teacher, I find Feynman's responses insightful and an inspiration. It's the same kind of questioning spirit and ability to "find things out" that his father instilled in him that I want to nurture in my students. This is the kind of view of scientists that people should see more of, not the stereotypcial mad scientist in the basement laboratory.

Also, I really liked the whole section on doing science for the fun of it... just playing around led him to his Nobel Prize.
posted by mikeweeney at 4:09 PM on April 17, 2006

You just made my day. He's one of my hero's !!
posted by BillsR100 at 4:11 PM on April 17, 2006

Isn't it "Feynman"? Anyway. I love that guy. I remember his essays on the Challenger explosion.
posted by tkchrist at 4:11 PM on April 17, 2006

Feynman, fuck yeah! Thanks!
posted by basicchannel at 4:19 PM on April 17, 2006

Since I'm at work, and can't see the link yet, I'll defer thanking you for the link, and instead thank you for using the phrase "If you only X one Y this year, let this be the one" in a sane way. Too often, it's used for something where nobody will X only one Y ("If you only eat one dinner this year"), or where nobody will X any Y ("If you only hang out with one former Namibian Prime Minister this year").

I can't remember the last "X only one Y this year" where I thought, "You know, I might in fact actually only X one Y this year. I guess I'll make this one it."
posted by Bugbread at 4:21 PM on April 17, 2006

Haven't got around to watching the video, but here's some more Feynman fun I'd been meaning to FPP some day.

Richard Feynman and The Connection Machine
Six Feynman stories
posted by MetaMonkey at 4:24 PM on April 17, 2006

Feynman's last words... "I'd hate to die twice. It's so boring."
posted by tkchrist at 4:31 PM on April 17, 2006

Best. Post. Ever.

I've read so much by and about the guy but had never seen him speak.
posted by killdevil at 4:38 PM on April 17, 2006

Good stuff - I love hearing about Feynman. It's amusing to see that this is a Horizon documentary - the BBC delivers once again! (although this is almost certainly a blatant copyright violation).
posted by adrianhon at 4:50 PM on April 17, 2006

His passionate rant on the Nobel Prize, awards and honor societies in general is priceless. I'd give a major organ to attend a drunken dinner party with Feynman and Vonnegut.
posted by loquacious at 5:00 PM on April 17, 2006

posted by semmi at 5:06 PM on April 17, 2006

His swipe at "social science" is a cheap shot. He clearly doesn't know what sciences fall under this moniker (sociology, history, geography, psychology, etc.) and the suggestion that we don't know anything as a result of the experiments that are done in that regard is either patently false, or logically vacuous. (His example is weird: that some people claim to study the benefits of eating organic foods. Qhat social scientist studies such things? That sounds a lot like what one might call "heath sciences" to me).

He admits that he knows nothing about social sciences, and suggests that his gut tells him nothing's been learned from it. It's a bit disturbing to hear from someone who claims to be such a strong epiricist (he'sjust spent 40 minutes talking about the importance of using rigorous math to accurately understand phenomena) turn around and take a swipe at a set of disciplines he hasn't a clue about. Saying "oh I'm sure I might be wrong" is just cheap hedging. Everything you learn about science should tell you that if you 're not sure about something, research it and then either make your statement with something to back it up, or just say nothing.

Plenty of so-called hard scientists have done so and have made useful contributions. The mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, for instance, has written extensively on consciousness, which bridges issues in biology, psychology and philosophy. Feinman himself has strong opinions on how to educate people who think different ways (which comes off as a way to insult his daughter and talk about what a smart kid his son is). That is about as squishy as anything else in social sciences.

That said, yes, I'm sure he's a wonderful physicist.
posted by drmarcj at 5:08 PM on April 17, 2006

It's spelled "Feynman", dudes and dudettes.
posted by jmhodges at 5:18 PM on April 17, 2006

this is great. this was previously only "available" as a torrent, and not terribly easy to find. YouTube/Google Video rocks, as does whoever uploaded it.

Feynman kicked the challenger investigation on its ass with a glass of ice water. the man was a true American hero.
posted by joeblough at 5:23 PM on April 17, 2006

Got a few hours to kill? Feynman's intro to quantum electrodynamics lectures at the u of auckland are understandable even if you know nothing about physics, and it's great fun to watch him teach.
posted by jewzilla at 5:29 PM on April 17, 2006

This is great. God he's charming.
posted by CunningLinguist at 6:22 PM on April 17, 2006

Isn't it "Feynman"

Woops, sorry for the typo. At least I got the tag right. And to say I read it over twice ...

If you've read the popular books many of the stories will be familiar [...] but it's a treat to hear them from Feynman himself.

True, what a great guy he was. Also, his ability to explain the most profound of concepts in such clear terms and by such apt analogies amazes me. I often have immense difficulties when I try to make non-technical people understand some concept in my field.

His swipe at "social science" is a cheap shot. He clearly doesn't know what sciences fall under this moniker (sociology, history, geography, psychology, etc.) and the suggestion that we don't know anything as a result of the experiments that are done in that regard is either patently false, or logically vacuous.

I don't think he really said that "that we don't know anything" or that no useful things have been achieved. What I think he meant was that it already takes huge amounts of study and verification to work out the laws of the simplest constituents of matter. Coming up with laws about people or social groups and really knowing they are correct is even several orders of magnitude more difficult due to the inherent complexity of the subject matter. So, you might come up with things that are generally true, but no real laws in the strict sense of the word.

As a case in point: Freud may have had some keen insights about the human psyche, but his writings are essentially a load of tripe, with virtually no backup by empirical data.
posted by koenie at 6:29 PM on April 17, 2006

His swipe at "social science" is a cheap shot.

I think what he was trying to get at here is that the degree of rigour in social sciences is low compared to the weight which theories in social science carry.
posted by storybored at 6:36 PM on April 17, 2006

To continue on the subject of the social sciences: in my opinion, the greatest challenge to psychology in the next decades (centuries maybe?) is the construction of a rigorous model of the brain on the varying levels of structural complexity. Once psychology has an explanation for how consciousness arises in the human brain, I think Feynman would have no problems calling it a scientific discipline.
posted by koenie at 6:42 PM on April 17, 2006

One of the honestly remarkable things in this video (thanks for posting koenie!) is his account of the reaction in Los Alamos when it was announced that the Bomb had been dropped on Hiroshima. Feynman and the other scientists partied on hearing the news. He doesn't try to whitewash the past...
posted by storybored at 6:43 PM on April 17, 2006

In high school physics class, we saw a documentary about him trying to get to Tuva, "The Quest For Tannu Tuva" (aka "Last Journey of a Genius"). I wish there was some way to see that.

(While searching for that, I found someone legit selling the documentary in the FPP. So that kind of sucks that it was pirated to Google video.)
posted by smackfu at 6:47 PM on April 17, 2006

There are also online video clips from Best Mind Since Einstein. And his daughter did a show with several physicists, online at: Remembering Richard Feynman
posted by billb at 6:52 PM on April 17, 2006

That was great, and fascinating, thanks for the link.

drmarcj, I think perhaps you misinterpreted Feynman's intentions - he wasn't denying that non-'hard' sciences are useful, or produce insight, but that those who practise them are often wont to mistake impressions and patterns for proof or truth.

His example about organic food is a fair one - we do not have the tools to accurately assess whatever data we may collect. This does not mean the data or the conclusions are wrong, just that the results produced are not comparable to those of 'hard' science. By extension those claiming to be an expert, indeed to know the truth of an unmeasurable matter, may well be misrepresenting their knowledge.

Psychology is a fair example; we have mountains of data, masses of theories, but no way to say with any certainty if any of it is provable. This does not mean it is not worthy of study (quite the opposite in fact - much more study is required!), merely that the conclusions of such study are incomparable with those of 'hard' science. The point being that it is impossible to find or demonstrate laws. This principle applies reasonably to what he refers to as pseudo-sciences, and indeed is a fair definition the term - studies where appropriate laws, methods and foundations have yet to be discovered or formalised.

'Plenty of so-called hard scientists have done so and have made useful contributions. The mathematical physicist Roger Penrose, for instance, has written extensively on consciousness...'

The difference being that Penrose would not claim his results were true or provable. I am quite confident Fenyman did not in fact dimiss these studies in any sense, simply those who portray them as something that they are not.
posted by MetaMonkey at 7:12 PM on April 17, 2006

driveler: At least he didn't sound like a recorded voice at an Arco AM/PM station.
posted by A dead Quaker at 7:45 PM on April 17, 2006

Feynman's intro to quantum electrodynamics lectures at the u of auckland are understandable even if you know nothing about physics

His book on the subject, book on the subject, "QED", is an astounding bit of science popularization. It's from a lecture series at UCLA (where he wasn't a professor; he was at Caltech). In these lectures he gives a coherent explanation of classical mechanics' law of least action as the classical limit of (Feynman) path integrals -- without assuming the audience knows about complex numbers! Really a sweet book.
posted by Aknaton at 8:06 PM on April 17, 2006

I really object to the cult of personality that surrounds certain scientists - still, if I was going to join one, it would be Feynman's.

On the subject of science education, check out Minds of Our Own.
posted by Chuckles at 8:31 PM on April 17, 2006

Feynman is awesome.

Matthew Broderick should've been run out of Hollywood after making "Infinity".
posted by pruner at 8:43 PM on April 17, 2006

Oh, wonderful! Thank you! I'm about to force my roommate to watch this.
posted by brundlefly at 8:46 PM on April 17, 2006

Is there a physicist in the house? How does Feynman's story about his current work end? Did he figure out the mathematics for the quark/gluon stuff?
posted by event at 8:51 PM on April 17, 2006

He's talking about quantum chromodynamics. The prize went to Politzer and others who in 1973 developed what is know as asymptotic freedom of quark behavior - and recieved the Nobel for it in 2004.
posted by vacapinta at 9:38 PM on April 17, 2006

I'm so glad that this was posted, watching it feels, right now, erroneously or not, like it is a formative event in my life. The viewing of this was charged with a feeling of importance that is at worst euphorically intoxicating and illusory and at best wholly and atavistically and real.

If, through some improbability, I ever become a great man, at anything, having seen this will have had something to do with it.
posted by I Foody at 9:54 PM on April 17, 2006

Mod note: fixed fpp typo
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 4:36 AM on April 18, 2006

anyone see "genghis blues"? Feynman lives!
posted by phaedon at 5:35 AM on April 18, 2006

Pruner , is infinity really that bad ? I always thought that story would make a good movie. Is it just played like a sappy tearjerker ?
posted by grex at 7:30 AM on April 18, 2006

anyone see "genghis blues"? Feynman lives!

Ha! Totally. That was a neat movie [here's the website, and here's a description for the uninitiated]. I went to a showing of the movie here in New York in late 2000 I think, where Ralph Leighton spoke, and Kongar-ol Ondar sang.

I will forever remember the scene where they are in the middle of the steppes, drinking vodka made from goat's milk.
posted by dammitjim at 11:58 AM on April 18, 2006

This was a nice video, thanks for the link.

Feynman is wrong about the social sciences for an oft-repeated egotistical reason popular with many hard scientists. First, he takes umbrage at the use of the word science, although it's clearly used in a way different than it is by physicists. In the phrase The social Sciences, the word is much more akin to the use of the word art in the phrase The Medical Arts: it's a non-specific noun used to cover a broad range of human endeavor. That definition is well-represented in dictionaries.

But his real mistake is implicit in his description of himself as a young man who was not at all interested in the humanities. He confuses, to the elevation of his own skills and interests, the knowledge produced by science with the only knowledge that matters when describing the world. It's true that for understanding the working of electrons, his knowledge is the most important and useful, but for understanding human interaction, not so much. The idea that psychology will only be useful when neurologists coral consciousness inside a multi-layered model of the brain ignores so much of human culture it's perverse. While ostensibly rejecting metaphysical explanations, Feynman, at the end of his interview, puts science into just such a position, not when he talks about radical doubt and questioning, but when he suggests through his half-assed critique of social science. Not incidentally, the question of whether organic veggies are better for you is actually a question of science.
posted by OmieWise at 12:20 PM on April 18, 2006

By the way, that page with the Feynman stories that metaMonkey linked seems to be maintained by a Google employee. I found her Desktop Search blog to be extrememly interesting.

And why am I in bold now (at least in preview)?

posted by Squid Voltaire at 1:46 PM on April 18, 2006

grex – it's a terrible movie, primarily focusing on Feynman's relationship with his first wife, who was in a sanitorium suffering from TB while he was working on the Manhattan Project.

very sappy indeed.

interestingly, he borrowed the car of German physicist Klaus Fuchs – who was later discovered to be a spy – to visit his wife. I don't remember whether that was portrayed in the movie.
posted by pruner at 4:01 PM on April 18, 2006

I just finished watching the video (dl took looooong time).

That piece at the end about about faith and doubt is one of the most uplifting speeches I have ever heard .

I agree with the rebuttals to drmarcj's criticism of Feynman's views on social science, Feynman would probably approve of some current attempts at social science like social network theory,and advances in cognition research.However there has to be some value in performing ethnographic studies while science slowly advances toward a rigorous theory of social interaction.
posted by grex at 6:34 PM on April 18, 2006

I first saw 'Surely You're Joking Mr. Feynman' sitting on the bookshelves when I was fresh out of high school. Several years later a girlfriend turned me onto it and since then I've diverted off in a myriad of directions, even meeting people who knew Feynman personally or who were in some way affiliated with him. Truly a remarkable man and hopefully an inspiration to many who otherwise might have thought of themselves as insignificant and unremarkable otherwise. Follow your dreams, pursue your bliss and in doing so realize nirvana, infinity, wonder.
Feynman, Dyson, Bethe, Einstien, Thorn, Greeley, Mutch, Schmidt and a myriad of others I owe for waking me up and giving me cause to take a really good look all around me and aspire to truly understand and question all. The universe is a much more fascinating and involving place because of people like them.
posted by mk1gti at 9:37 PM on April 19, 2006

« Older One Red Paperclip turns into a year in Phoenix   |   2005 National Recording Registry Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments