Tuesday, August 8, 2017

The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. FeynmanThe Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman by Richard Feynman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"[...] a question requires doubt. People search for certainty. But there is no certainty. People are terrified - how can you live and not know? It is not odd at all. You only think you know [...] most of your actions are based on incomplete knowledge and you really don't know what it is all about, or what the purpose of the world is [...] It is possible to live and not know."

This overlong epigraph illustrates Richard P. Feynman's main thesis presented in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (1999), a collection of informal writings by the famous physicist, a set that could be called "the best short works of Feynman." It includes his talks, official speeches and lectures, transcripts of TV programs, and even Feynman's "minority report" to the official Challenger disaster report. The Nobel Prize winner, a man universally acclaimed as a true genius, returns to his main thesis several times in this collection. His definition of a scientist is:
"A scientist is never certain. [...] all our statements are approximate statements with different degrees of certainty; [...] when a statement is made, the question is not whether it is true or false but rather how likely it is to be true or false."
The only statements which can be proven true or false are statements of mathematics, which is one of the reasons that mathematics is not a science. I wish Feynman's words were required reading in colleges, perhaps even in high schools.

The author offers a sharp and convincing critique of pseudo-science where he uses examples of astrology and parapsychology, and returns to his famous "Cargo Science" case that originated from observations of tribal society's customs acquired after their interaction with technology beyond their grasp. Feynman also lambasts the practices of advertising industry and writes that commercials may constitute "scientifically immoral description of the products."

I exclaimed "Yes! How true!" when I read the following fragment:
"[...] we live in an unscientific age in which almost all the buffeting of communications and television words, books, and so on are unscientific."
Feynman is lucky to have not lived long enough to witness the times of total misinformation that now exists thanks to the Internet. He would be horrified!

Feynman writes about other important topics as well. The last piece in the set is entitled The Relation of Science and Religion, where the author distinguishes three main aspects of religion: metaphysical, ethical, and inspirational, and argues that there exists an incompatibility between religion and science in the first aspect, and that there may be conflicts in the domain of inspirational aspect. This is a fascinating discussion, and as a true scientist the author emphasizes that he is not completely sure of his statements.

On a lighter note we have a long item where Feynman reminisces about his times on the Manhattan Project in Los Alamos. We read about hilarious pranks he pulled: safecracking, sneaking out of the tightly guarded compound, etc. The reader can find an extremely funny (and I mean it literally, "extremely funny") passage where the author is awed by the decision-making prowess of top-level military people: how they are able to decide in just five minutes on momentous issues about which they do not have the faintest idea!

Four stars.

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