Wednesday, November 25, 2009

The Meaning of it all - Richard Feynman

The demand for certainty is one which is natural to man, but is nevertheless an intellectual vice. - Bertrand Russell

A compilation of a series of 3 lectures delivered by Richard Feynman at the University of Washington, Seattle, in 1963, this book delivers profound ideas with a very simple style that can be understood and imbibed by anyone, scientist or not alike. The three lectures are titled, "The Uncertainty of Science", "The Uncertainty of Values" and "This Unscientific Age". The first two lectures have a very good build up and are in continuum, talking about the importance of being uncertain, both in science and in morals or values. The third lecture is a little bit more adhoc as the person delivering the lecture admits and deals with some of the problems we are facing in the current age. Feynman covers both the glaring issues and those that are pretty subtle in nature, potentially harmful nevertheless.

The first lecture is about how uncertainty is important in science inorder to discard older scientific beliefs and embrace newer and more precise ones. Feynman gives the 3 views of the meaning of science, science seen in application of inventions and discoveries (also called technology), science as a body of knowledge arising out of certain inventions and discoveries and the very traditional definition of Science, as a method of inventing and discovering new things. He talks about how scientific statements have to be stated in a precise fashion, leaving very less vagueness and a low tolerance for interpretation, or worse, misinterpretation.

The second lecture is much more interesting as Feynman explores the differences between religious views and scientific views, how uncertainty in values is important, how a "certain" leader is more harmful than an uncertain one, how democracy stems from uncertainty and so on. He makes it a point that "if something cannot be disproved it has to be true" is the most dangerous assumption to be making. This is the same point that the Russell's teapot (see The God Delusion review) analogy explains.

The last lecture is the longest one and deals with a list of problems in this age that makes this age an unscientific one. Here he talks about how quoting probability in experiments after an event has occurred rather than before is not right, how sampling needs to be done for any kind of statistical experiment, how gullible people are by falling for advertising, a skeptic outlook on some of the space missions, questions the need for English teachers and spelling rules, how mind-reading and astrology need to be disowned and so on.

Overall, an engrossing and entertaining 120+ pages, by one of the greatest Physicist and Nobel prize winner in the past century. Though it may not give you the meaning of it all, it does make you a little more uncertain, a little more skeptical and helps you avoid the biggest intellectual vice, Certainty.