Wednesday, June 28, 2006

Oh Richard Feynman we love you get up

While Dan made his QSOs this weekend, I read QED. Overall I found it pretty congenial, though one or two of the metaphors were actually too simplified for me -- I could understand how I was supposed to use them, but not what they actually represented. I was most struck, however, by Feynman's very matter-of-fact explanations of what physics is actually for, and what it actually does. As you know, this is knowledge that I feel is crucial, whether you're in the sciences or the humanities (and especially if you're a politician!). So I wanted to share a couple of quotes.

On page 8 in my edition:
We physicists are always checking to see if there is something the matter with the theory. That's the game, because if there is something the matter, it's interesting! But so far, we have found nothing wrong with the theory of quantum electrodynamics.
Replace "quantum electrodynamics" in that quote with, say, "evolution" -- or any other well-supported theory -- and you're left with a pretty concise, parsimonious explanation of the goals and methods of science.

My favorite quote on the subject of general science, though, is on page 10 in my edition:
Finally, there is this possibility: after I tell you something, you just can't believe it. A little screeen comes down and you don't listen anymore. I'm going to describe to you how Nature is -- and if you don't like it, that's going to get in the way of your understanding it. It's a problem that physicists have learned to deal with: They've learned to realize that whether they like a theory or they don't like a theory is not the essential question. Rather, it is whether or not the theory gives predictions that agree with experiment. It is not a question of whether a theory is philosophically delightful, or easy to understand, or perfectly reasonable from the point of view of common sense. The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you can accept Nature as She is -- absurd.
Of course, everyone reading this knows that this is the case. But Feynman was talking to people who didn't know, presumably, and I'm willing to bet that he convinced them. Do we have people doing this now? Great scientists, widely acknowledged to be great scientists, who bother to sit people down and say "here's how science works -- not just what we've discovered, but why it means something that we discovered it"? Daniel Dennett is the closest thing I can think of, and of course he's an amazing writer and thinker, but his status as a philosopher (rather than a scientist) is potentially an Achilles heel. People are more than willing to speak of him dismissively. Even the New York Times Magazine didn't give him a fucking break.

I think perhaps the problem is that great scientists are no longer widely (i.e. near-universally) acknowledged as great scientists. Certainly it's a rare scientist who has the force of personality that Feynman had, but I can't think offhand of any current scientists who enjoy "public intellectual" status. There was an article in a recent New Scientist, which I also read in the tent this weekend, complaining about "the fall of reason in the West":
The other challenge was external: a much more critical view of science adopted by the rest of society. Science revealed a darker side. Suspicions arose that it was dehumanising and the tool of dictators. Then came the atom bomb. Since the 1960s, evidence has begun to pile up that science's triumphs are poisoning the planet.

The result is a widespread western, and especially American, descent into superstition. About 40 per cent of Americans believe that Genesis accurately describes the creation. There is an apparent belief in magic that has had no parallel since the Middle Ages. The growing anti-intellectualism has no western precedent at all. We are witnessing the elevation of emotion over reason, of personal conviction over hard thinking.


But pause. Reflect on the inspirations for modern science: belief in God and belief in humanity, a rational world view, and optimism about humanity's place in the cosmos. Science, it seems, has disposed of much of what made it successful. It has eaten away at its thought-foundations: its contribution to human meaning, the human spirit and the non-material richness of civilisation has shrivelled.
This article gave me pause, although I didn't fully agree with all of it. Primarily, I'm not sure I accept the active voice when the authors say that "science...has disposed of much of what made it successful." I tend to think that the fault lies not with the scientists, who after all are just doing what they've always done, and more with the state of public education -- most people are being fed misinformation about science and its role, and the public education system is ill-equipped to adequately counter this misinformation, nor to stanch it at its source. But I wonder whether our side just needs a charismatic, plain-talking genius in the Feynman mold.

So... nominations?

(P.S., yes, it's a Frank O'Hara reference. My MA in English is basically useless on the job front, so I might as well get some fun out of it.)


Julie said...

Jess- I can't think of a current Feynman unless you count the late Stephen Jay Gould (who is an outstanding writer- I highly recommend his books) or someone like the late Carl Sagan. If I rack my brain I'll think of more of these.
Incidentally, you should read "Six Easy Pieces" and then "Six not so Easy Pieces" by Fenman. These are EXCELLENT excerpts of his lectures to freshman and sophomores. He really explains physics in a way that makes it seem easy. I think the book may be more meaningful if you have studied the science on a mathematical level but it is definitely worth while for anyone because he is such a genius with language. Who knows? Perhaps his accounts of molecules and energy will inspire you to redirect your studies in the physics classroom. Are you still in school or are you done? (I noticed you said MA in English- are you finished?) Incidentally, I have the MA in chemistry- rather ridiculous- who ever heard of an MA in chemistry? Yes, it is true that this is my degree.

6/29/2006 3:03 AM  
jess said...

Stephen Jay Gould is a good one, although I gather that he doesn't have a uniformly spotless reputation among evolutionary biologists. But evolutionary biologists can be a pretty contentious bunch sometimes. It's a bit upsetting to me, mostly because the "spandrel" metaphor is so useful, and if Gould is non grata among evolutionary biologists, am I not allowed to use it anymore? Also because I love how he writes.

Yeah, I'm done with my MA. (And I never actually had to read Frank O'Hara for it -- that was extracurricular.) Physics was actually my main science through HS and college -- I wasn't that great at bio, better at bio history. I only ever did non-calculus physics, though, so my understanding remains at a pretty lay level.

I can see an MA in chemistry being useful, especially if you wanted to teach at a high school level! And boy, do we need good high school teachers. Part of the reason I didn't do any biology in college, I think, was that HS chemistry was so awful, while HS physics was terrific.

6/29/2006 1:24 PM  
Julie said...

No- I don't want to teach high school- at least not right now. I'd rather do freelance writing and apply for full time writing positions in biotech/pharma (this is to feed and house myself). I had a really interesting interview today for a documentation position with a software company. They design programs that mimic molecules in the body or the action of polymers/molecules of different surface types.
Are you still in school working toward the Ph.D. or did you decide to stop at the master's? I had enough by the time I finished my master's and I spoke to several people who told me that they would just "walk away" if they weren't already five or six years into their degree. I think it seems to drag on too long for some.
I didn't realize Gould's reputation was tarnished with evolutionary biologists. I suppose anyone who talks to the media as much as he did starts to gain suspicion in their field. He probably came to be known as the oddball who went after publicity.

6/29/2006 6:53 PM  
Lynne said...

This post has been removed by the author.

6/29/2006 8:17 PM  
Lynne said...

"I suppose anyone who talks to the media as much as he did starts to gain suspicion in their field. He probably came to be known as the oddball who went after publicity."

Every academic field has one of those, I think.

6/29/2006 8:22 PM  
Alejandro said...

Perhaps Richard Dawkins is the best current example? Or has he been cast too much in the role of anti-religious bogeyman?

7/03/2006 6:06 AM  
jess said...

Hmm... Richard Dawkins is pretty damn awesome. But I've heard people on our side bellyaching about his extreme views on religion, and if those turn off the scientists, you betcha they'll turn off the rest of the country! Also, in my experience Dawkins doesn't make much pretense of writing for the common man. But that's a good suggestion nonetheless... he may indeed be the closest thing we've got.

7/03/2006 4:49 PM  

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