Friday, 11 May 2012

Happy Birthday Mr Feynman

Richard Feynman was born on the 11th May 1918 in Queens, New York. Had he not died in 1988, today would be his 94th birthday.




Idolising people is not my style, but Feynman is one person whose attitude and approach to life I would be happy to follow. The importance of cutting through received wisdom to find the truth using experiment and evidence; the sense of fun and exploration of the world; valuing real accomplishments over honours, titles and pomposity; the playful intelligence that is at once toying with a problem and seeing through it with great insight; the humanity and compasson. Both genius and buffoon.



I offer some thoughts from the man himself.




"The first principle is that you must not fool yourself, and you are the easiest person to fool."


"We are at the very beginning of time for the human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with problems. But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our responsibility is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and pass them on."








"It doesn't seem to me that this fantastically marvellous universe, this tremendous range of time and space and different kinds of animals, and all the different planets, and all these atoms with all their motions, and so on, all this complicated thing can merely be a stage so that God can watch human beings struggle for good and evil — which is the view that religion has. The stage is too big for the drama."








"Looking back at the worst times, it always seems that they were times in which there were people who believed with absolute faith and absolute dogmatism in something. And they were so serious in this matter that they insisted that the rest of the world 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."



"The real question of government versus private enterprise is argued on too philosophical and abstract a basis. Theoretically, planning may be good. But nobody has ever figured out the cause of government stupidity—and until they do (and find the cure), all ideal plans will fall into quicksand."









"For a successful technology, reality must take precedence over public relations, for nature cannot be fooled."


"It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong."






"I can live with doubt, and uncertainty, and not knowing. I think it's much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers, and possible beliefs, and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I’m not absolutely sure of anything, and in many things I don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here, and what the question might mean. I might think about it a little, but if I can’t figure it out, then I go to something else. But I don’t have to know an answer. I don’t feel frightened by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without having any purpose, which is the way it really is, as far as I can tell, possibly. It doesn’t frighten me."





"The first ... has to do with whether a man knows what he is talking about, whether what he says has some basis or not. And my trick that I use is very easy. If you ask him intelligent questions — then he quickly gets stuck. It is like a child asking naive questions. If you ask naive but relevant questions, then almost immediately the person doesn't know the answer, if he is an honest man."




Back in 1981 BBC Horizon interviewed Feynman at length: the entire programme was Feynman talking about his life, family, work, influences and ideas. It's been put on YouTube and I highly recommend watching it in full, not only for the fascinating interview but just to marvel that 30 years ago it was possible to make a TV science programme that treated its viewers as intelligent, thoughtful, and able to concentrate on something interesting for 50 minutes. Though it appears that even back then, cheesy computer graphics were de rigeur.


Feynman's BBC Horizon interview, 1981.



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