A Brief Introduction to Richard Feynman.
from a review of Feynman's biography at
Richard P. Feynman was (and is) a hero to me, as he was (and is) to
physics students and colleagues around the world. When he died on
February 15th, 1988, the world lost one of the finest theoretical
physicist and one of the finest teachers of the 20th century.
Hans Bethe of Cornell University, paraphrasing the mathematician Mark
Kac, said there are two kinds of geniuses. The ordinary kind does great
things but lets other scientists feel that they could do the same if
only they worked hard enough. The other kind performs magic. "A magician
does things that nobody else can do and that seem completely
unexpected," Dr. Bethe said, "and that's Feynman."
To his scientific colleagues, Richard Feynman was a magician of the
highest caliber. Architect of quantum theories, 'enfant terrible' of the
atomic bomb project, caustic critic of the space shuttle commission,
Nobel Prize winner for work that gave physicists a new and easier way of
describing and calculating the interactions of subatomic particles,
Richard Feynman left his mark on virtually every area of modern physics.
Originality was his obsession. Never content with what he knew or with
what others knew, Feynman ceaselessly questioned scientific truths. But
there was another side to him, one which made him a legendary figure
among scientists. His curiosity moved well beyond things scientific: he
taught himself how to play drums, to give massages, to write Chinese, to
Feynman, Richard P. (1988), The
Value of Science, from
the (highly recommended) Classic
Feynman: All the Adventures of a Curious Character.
First, the 1988 Introduction by Feynman himself (he died one month
When I was younger, I
would make good things for everybody.
It was obviously useful; it was good. During
the war I worked
atomic bomb. This result of science was obviously a very serious matter: It represented the
the war I was
very worried about the bomb. I didn't know what
the future was going to look like, and I
certainly wasn't anywhere near sure that we would last until now.
question was: is there
some evil involved in science?
another way, what
is the value of the science I had dedicated myself
to—the thing I loved—when I saw what
terrible things it could do? It was a question I had to answer.
Science" was a kind of report, if you will [Feynman
gave that "report" as
a public address to a 1955 meeting of the National Academy
of Sciences.] on many
came to me when I tried to answer that question.
Feynman, January 1988
Then the lecture itself:
The Value of Science
From time to time people suggest to me that
ought to give more consideration to social problems - especially that
should be more responsible in considering the impact of science on
It seems to be generally believed that if the scientists would only
at these very difficult social problems and not spend so much time
with less vital scientific ones, great success would come of it.
It seems to me that we do think about
these problems from time to time, but we don't put a full-time effort
them - the reasons being that we know we don't have any magic formula
solving social problems, that social problems are very much harder than
scientific ones, and that we usually don't get anywhere when we do
I believe that a scientist looking at
problems is just as dumb as the next guy - and when he talks about a
matter, he sounds as naive as anyone untrained in the matter.
the question of the value of science is not a scientific
this talk is dedicated to proving my point - by example.
The first way in which science is of value
is familiar to everyone. It is that scientific knowledge enables
us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things. Of
course if we make good things, it is not only to the credit of
it is also to the credit of the moral choice which led us to good
Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad -
it does not carry instructions on how to use it. Such power has
value - even though the power may be negated by what one does with it.
I learned a way of expressing this common
human problem on a trip to Honolulu. In a Buddhist temple there,
the man in charge explained a little bit about the Buddhist religion
tourists, and then ended his talk by telling them he had something to
to them that they would never forget - and I have never
it. It was a proverb of the Buddhist religion:
To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven;
same key opens the gates of hell.
What then, is the value of the key to
It is true that if we lack clear instructions that enable us to
which is the gate to heaven and which the gate to hell, the key may be
a dangerous object to use.
But the key obviously has value: how can we
enter heaven without it?
Instructions would be of no value without
the key. So it is evident that, in spite of the fact that it
produce enormous horror in the world, science is of value because it can
Another value of science is the fun called
intellectual enjoyment which some people get from reading and learning
and thinking about it, and which others get from working in it.
is an important point, one which is not considered enough by those who
tell us it is our social responsibility to reflect on the impact of
Is this mere personal enjoyment of value to
society as a whole? No! But it is also a responsibility to consider the
aim of society itself. Is it to arrange matters so that people
enjoy things? If so, then the enjoyment of science is as
as anything else.
But I would like not to underestimate
the value of the world view which is the results of scientific
We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more
than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past. It shows
the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of
For instance, how much more remarkable it is for us all to be stuck -
of us upside down - by a mysterious attraction to a spinning ball that
has been swinging in space for billions of years than to be carried on
the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a
I have thought about these things so many
times alone that I hope you will excuse me if I remind you of this type
of thought that I am sure many of you have had, which no one could ever
have had in the past because people then didn't have the information we
have about the world today.
There are the rushing waves
The same thrill, the same awe and mystery,
again and again when we look at any question deeply enough. With
more knowledge comes a deeper, more wonderful mystery, luring one on to
penetrate deeper still. Never concerned that the answer may prove
disappointing, with pleasure and confidence we turn over each new stone
to find unimagined strangeness leading on to more wonderful questions
mysteries - certainly a grand adventure!
mountains of molecules
each stupidly minding its own business
yet forming white surf in unison.
Ages on ages
before any eyes could see
year after year
thunderously pounding the shore as now.
For whom, for what?
On a dead planet
with no life to entertain.
Never at rest
tortured by energy
wasted prodigiously by the sun
poured into space
A mite makes the sea roar.
Deep in the sea
all molecules repeat
the patterns of one another
till complex new ones are formed.
They make others like themselves
and a new dance starts.
Growing in size and complexity
masses of atoms
dancing a pattern ever more intricate.
Out of the cradle
onto dry land
here it is
atoms with consciousness;
matter with curiosity.
Stands at the sea,
wonders at wondering: I
a universe of atoms
an atom in the universe.
It is true that few unscientific people have
this particular type of religious experience. Our poets do not
about it; our artists do not try to portray this remarkable
I don't know why. Is no one inspired by our present picture of
universe? This value of science remains unsung by singers: you
reduced to hearing not a song or poem, but an evening lecture about
This is not yet a scientific age.
Perhaps one of the reasons for this silence
is that you have to know how to read the music. For instance, the
scientific article may say, "The radioactive phosphorus content of the
cerebrum of the rat decreases to one-half in a period of two
Now what does that mean?
It means that phosphorous that is in the brain
of a rat - and also in mine, and yours - is not the same phosphorus as
it was two weeks ago. It means the atoms that are in the brain
being replaced: the ones that were there before have gone away.
So what is this mind of ours: what are these
atoms with consciousness? Last week's potatoes! They now
remember what was going on in my mind a year ago - a mind which
has long ago been replaced.
To note that the thing I call my individuality
is only a pattern or dance, that is what it means when one
how long it takes for the atoms of the brain to be replaced by other
The atoms come into my brain, dance a dance, and then go out - there
always new atoms, but always doing the same dance, remembering what the
dance was yesterday.
When we read about this in the newspaper,
it says "Scientists say this discovery may have importance in the
for a cure for cancer." The paper is only interested in the use
the idea, not the idea itself. Hardly anyone can understand the
of an idea, it is so remarkable. Except that, possibly, some
catch on. And when a child catches on to an idea like that, we
a scientist. It is too late1
to get the spirit when they are in our universities, so we must attempt
to explain these ideas to children.
I would now like to turn to a third value
that science has. It is a little less direct, but not much.
The scientist has a lot of experience with ignorance and doubt and
and this experience is of very great importance, I think. When a
scientist doesn't know the answer to a problem, he is ignorant.
he has a hunch as to what the result is, he is uncertain. And
he is pretty darn sure of what the result is going to be, he is still
some doubt. We have found it of paramount importance that in
to progress we must recognize our ignorance and leave room for
Scientific knowledge is a body of statements of varying degrees of
- some most unsure, some nearly sure, but none absolutely
Now, we scientists are used to this, and we
take it for granted that it is perfectly consistent to be unsure, that
it is possible to live and not know. But I don't know
everyone realizes this is true. Our freedom to doubt was born out
of a struggle against authority in the early days of science. It
was a very deep and strong struggle: permit us to question - to doubt -
to not be sure. I think that it is important that we do not
this struggle and thus perhaps lose what we have gained. Herein
a responsibility to society.
We are all sad when we think of the wondrous
potentialities human beings seem to have, as contrasted with their
accomplishments. Again and again people have thought that we
do much better. Those of the past saw in the nightmare of their
a dream for the future. We, of their future, see that
dreams, in certain ways surpassed, have in many ways remained
The hopes for the future today are, in good share, those of yesterday.
It was once thought that the possibilities
people had were not developed because most of the people were
With universal education, could all men be Voltaires? Bad can be taught
at least as efficiently as good. Education is a strong force, but
for either good or evil.
Communications between nations must promote
understanding - so went another dream. But the machines of
can be manipulated. What is communicated can be truth or
Communication is a strong force, but also for either good or evil.
The applied sciences should free men of
problems at least. Medicine controls diseases. And the
here seems all to the good. Yet there are some patiently working
today to create great plagues and poisons for use in warfare tomorrow.
Nearly everyone dislikes war. Our dream
today is peace. In peace, man can develop best the enormous
he seems to have. But maybe future men will find that peace, too,
can be good and bad. Perhaps peaceful men will drink out of
Then perhaps drink will become the great problem which seems to keep
from getting all he thinks he should out of his abilities.
Clearly, peace is a great force - as are
material power, communication, education, honesty, and the ideals of
dreamers. We have more of these forces to control than did the
And maybe we are doing a little better than most of them could
But what we ought to be able to do seems gigantic compared with our
Why is this? Why can't we conquer
Because we find that even great forces and
abilities do not seem to carry with them clear instructions on how to
them. As an example, the great accumulation of understanding as
how the physical world behaves only convinces one that this behavior
to have a kind of meaninglessness. The sciences do not directly
good and bad.
Through all ages of our past, people have
tried to fathom the meaning of life. They have realized that if
direction or meaning could be given to our actions, great human forces
would be unleashed. So very many answers have been given to the
of the meaning of it all. But the answers have been of all
sorts, and the proponents of one answer have looked with horror at the
actions of the believers in another - horror, because from a
point of view all the great potentialities of the race are channeled
a false and confining blind alley. In fact, it is from the
of the enormous monstrosities created by false belief that philosophers
have realized the apparently infinite and wondrous capacities of human
beings. The dream is to find the open channel.
What, then, is the meaning of it all?
What can we say to dispel the mystery of existence?
If we take everything into account - not only
what the ancients knew, but all of what we know today that they didn't
know - then I think we must frankly admit that we do not know.
But, in admitting this, we have probably found
the open channel.
This is not a new idea; this is the idea of
the age of reason. This is the philosophy that guided the men who
made the democracy that we live under. The idea that no one
knew how to run a government led to the idea that we should arrange a
by which new ideas could be developed, tried out, and tossed out if
with more new ideas brought in - a trial-and-error system. This
was a result of the fact that science was already showing itself to be
a successful venture at the end of the eighteenth century. Even
it was clear to socially minded people that the openness of
was an opportunity, and that doubt and discussion were essential to
into the unknown. If we want to solve a problem that we have
solved before, we must leave the door to the unknown ajar.
We are at the very beginning of time for the
human race. It is not unreasonable that we grapple with
But there are tens of thousands of years in the future. Our
is to do what we can, learn what we can, improve the solutions, and
them on. It is our responsibility to leave the people of the
a free hand. In the impetuous youth of humanity, we can make
errors that can stunt our growth for a long time. This we will do
if we say we have the answers now, so young and ignorant as we
If we suppress all discussion, all criticism, proclaiming "This is the
answer, my friends; man is saved!" we will doom humanity for a long
to the chains of authority, confined to the limits of our present
It has been done so many times before.
It is our responsibility as scientists,
the great progress which comes from a satisfactory philosophy of
the great progress which is the fruit of freedom of thought, to
the value of this freedom; to teach how doubt is not to be feared but
and discussed; and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming