The Man Who Loved Ideas
Chris Quigg

The Meaning of It All: Thoughts of a Citizen Scientist. By Richard P. Feynman. 133 pp. Reading, Mass.: Helix Books / Addison-Wesley. $22.

Richard Feynman was my teacher long before we met. Ten years after his death, he remains an inspiration and example to me and to many physicists, as well as the icon of a public scientist to a growing legion of admirers in the world at large.

Feynman in life was a remarkable presence. There was Feynman the peerless scientist: the Nobel laureate who had constructed the theory of photons and electrons, invented the little diagrams that supplanted equations as the way physicists think about fundamental processes, and spoken delphically of antiparticles as particles moving backward through time. There was Feynman the captivating lecturer: the performance artist, really, who took seriously both his subject and his audience, invested himself in every lecture, and punctuated his performances with wisecracks and homilies alike. And, of course, there was Feynman the character: the bongo-playing safecracker who stood up for the First-Amendment rights of topless dancers.

When I did meet Feynman—having heard him lecture on film and in person, having studied the classic papers and worked through his two little books on Quantum Electrodynamics and The Theory of Fundamental Processes—I saw yet another face. One evening at a conference at Cornell in 1971, he took me off to a quiet corner and acted as if he expected to learn something from me. That was ridiculous, but the man was serious! For more than an hour, he kept asking, “What do you know?” and “How do you know that?” and “How do you think about that?” and “What do you think that means?” It wasn’t long before I began to feel that he had inserted a catheter into my skull and was siphoning out every lonely thought. This was Feynman the comrade, who wanted to learn to think the way Nature does, the man who loved ideas—and not just his own.

The Meaning of It All is drawn from three lectures that Richard Feynman gave in April 1963 at the University of Washington on the theme, “A Scientist Looks at Society.” The talks came as the world was still exhaling after the Cuban missile crisis, two weeks after Pope John XXIII issued Pacem in Terris, at a moment when the tyrant Trofim Denisovich Lysenko still directed the Institute of Genetics in the Soviet Union. Feynman himself was just completing the two-year introductory course we know as the Feynman Lectures in Physics, would soon give the famous Messenger Lectures at Cornell (which physics students still watch in grainy black-and-white film), and would receive the Nobel Prize in 1965 with Julian Schwinger and Shin’ichiro Tomonaga.

In “The Uncertainty of Science,” we find Feynman on familiar ground as the jubilant tour-guide to scientific insights and the fervent apostle of “science as a method for finding things out.” Of the things we have learned through science, he writes, “This is the gold. This is the excitement, the pay you get for all the disciplined thinking and hard work. The work is not done for the sake of an application. It is done for the excitement of what is found out. ... [W]ithout understanding that, you miss the whole point. ... You do not live in your time unless you understand that this is a tremendous adventure and a wild and exciting thing.”

As a method for finding things out, science lives by its disdain for authority and its reliance on experimentation. The seventeenth-century gentlemen who founded the Royal Society of London took as their motto Nullius in verba—Don’t take anyone’s word for it! For Feynman, science “is based on the principle that observation is the judge of whether something is so or not.”

“Why repeat all this?” he asks rhetorically. “Because there are new generations born every day. Because there are great ideas developed in the history of man, and these ideas do not last unless they are passed purposely and clearly from generation to generation.” But Feynman does not merely “repeat all this.” He shows that the strength of science lies in its provisional nature, its open-mindedness, its capacity for doubt and uncertainty. Perhaps, he suggests, science’s experience with doubt and uncertainty is its great lesson for humanity.

“It was a struggle to be permitted to doubt, to be unsure. And I do not want us to forget the importance of the struggle and, by default, to let the thing fall away. I feel a responsibility as a scientist who knows the great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, and the progress made possible by such a philosophy, progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought. I feel a responsibility to proclaim the value of this freedom and to teach that doubt is not to be feared, but that it is to be welcomed as the possibility of a new potential for human beings. If you know that you are not sure, you have a chance to improve the situation. I want to demand this freedom for future generations.”

In “The Uncertainty of Values,” Feynman argues that by admitting ignorance and uncertainty we may find hope for human institutions. “Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world would agree with them. And then they would do things that were directly inconsistent with their own beliefs in order to maintain that what they said was true.”

Feynman steps outside the safe terrain of scientific discourse because he acknowledges the limitations of science, and because “[w]estern civilization, it seems to me, stands by two great heritages. One is the scientific spirit of adventure—the adventure into the unknown, an unknown that must be recognized as unknown in order to be explored . . . To summarize it: humility of the intellect. The other great heritage is Christian ethics—the basis of action on love, the brotherhood of all men, the value of the individual, the humility of the spirit.”

He sees the ideological struggle between east and west not “as between socialism and capitalism, but rather between suppression of ideas and free ideas.” He believes that the “writers of the Constitution knew the value of doubt. In the age that they lived, for instance, science had already developed far enough to show the possibilities and potentialities that are the result of having uncertainty, the value of having the openness of possibility. ... Doubt and discussion are essential to progress. The United States government, in that respect, is new, it’s modern, and it is scientific.”

Whether you find Feynman’s political science insightful or naïve, the link between science and freedom has not lost its importance. Czech President Vaclav Havel, who saw through every Stalinist lie except the specious claim that the Soviet system was “scientific,” now delivers postmodern indictments of the scientific world-view he links with totalitarian régimes. But here is Feynman: “Where did we ever get the idea that the Russians were, in some sense, scientific? ... [I]t is not scientific ... to be blind in order to maintain ignorance.”

The final lecture in this collection, “This Unscientific Age,” is a grab-bag of opinions and ideas, as long in print as the first two lectures combined. Here we find Feynman’s take on the John Birch Society: “They don’t have a sense of proportion.” There is also an early indication of his impatience with NASA: “It’s not necessary that we have so many failures, as far as I can tell. There’s something the matter in the organization, in the administration, in the engineering, or in the making of these instruments. It’s important to know that. It’s not worthwhile knowing that we’re always learning something [from these needless failures].”

Most provocative is Feynman’s attitude toward religion as an impulse toward ethical behavior. In scientific matters, we require not only the correct conclusion, but also a correct chain of reasoning. What matters to Feynman in human affairs is not the motivation, but the behavior. He receives John XXIII’s encyclical letter on establishing universal peace in truth, justice, charity, and liberty with optimism “as the beginning, possibly, of a new future where we forget, perhaps, about the theories of why we believe things as long as we ultimately, as far as action is concerned, believe the same thing.”

The Meaning of It All is the chance to spend a few hours in Feynman’s company, to ponder and debate his ideas. It is also an unspoken challenge to physicists to think about the cultural and spiritual value of science and, following Richard Feynman’s example, dare to think aloud and in public.

A shorter version appeared in the July 17, 1998, issue of FermiNews, · © Chris Quigg.