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#30 – The Pleasure of Finding Things Out

July 16, 2007

i am a scientist, i seek to understand me, i am an incurable and nothing else behaves like meI’ve never had much of a mind for science. I made it through high school Biology, Chemistry, and Physics, and the main thing that I learned is that I needed to stay away from them if I ever wanted to graduate from university. I’ve never taken a scientific course since. It’s a shame, because even though I’m crap at it, I am utterly fascinated by science. I wish I understood more about it, and I love reading articles online about new scientific discoveries, or books like How The Mind Works or The Singularity Is Near; written in simple enough terms that I’m able to mostly understand them. However, it’s books like The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman that make me want to drop out of law school and start all over again as a Physics undergrad. Here’s a book about how wonderful and amazing and inspiring science can be when done properly.

Richard Feynman, the author of the collected pieces in this book, was a well-known and highly influential physicist, whom I was woefully unaware of until learning about him from Sarah Slean’s “Vitamins” recommendations page. The more I find out about him, though, the more fascinating he sounds: invited to Los Alamos to work on the Manhattan Project at age 25, winner of the Nobel Prize in 1965, and considered to be the “father of nanotechnology” for a lecture he gave in 1959 on the theoretical possibilities of miniaturization. And while his writing on specific subjects like these are interesting, what really sells this book for me is his broader writing on science in general.

Feynman’s writing is captivating whether he’s taking about about his experiences in teaching Physics, his complaints about the pseudoscientific practices of “social scientists”, or his concern over how unscientific society remains, despite cultural advances.  He treats astrology, religion, and advertising as if they’re equally offensive to a scientific mind, and as he explains it, you understand that they absolutely are.  He also discusses the joy he feels when doing his work, the titular “pleasure of finding things out” (or as he puts it in a few of these works, “the kick in the discovery”) he gets when things come together and an equation works or a theory is proved, or some other scientific thing.  The closest I’ve ever come to that feeling is reading while researching my first year Moot Trial that doctors don’t have to inform their patients of the commonplace risks to medical procedures; not even close to the same.  Feynman makes me jealous of the scientifically inclined.

I don’t want to give you the impression that this is some dry textbook, either – Feynman comes across in The Pleasure of Finding Things Out as charismatic, and funny.  Many of the pieces collected here are transcripts of lectures he gave, and some of them are flat out hilarious.  He talks about killing time at Los Alamos by breaking into top secret filing cabinets and safes, and trying to see what kinds of codes he could slip past the government censors in letters to his wife.  He uses a metaphor throughout referring to the social sciences as “Cargo Cult Science“, comparing the scientists to post-WWII South Sea Islanders building wooden runways in an attempt to summon cargo planes.  If you’re interested in science but not particularly skilled at it, like I am, Richard Feynman is a great read.  If you are good at science, well, the man’s a genius and a Nobel winner, so I’m sure he’s got something of value to say to you too.  If you’ve got the time, check out these University of Auckland videos of the Douglas Robb Memorial Lectures to get a sense of Feynman as a professor.  This was my initial recommendation to the man, and after just a few minutes, you’ll be amazed at how intriguing he makes a pretty complicated topic.

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